Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Mastiff” was originally published in the July 1, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

A man and a woman, uncertain in their couple status, are out for a hike. When the story begins, they pass a massive dog, pulling its master along the trail. The woman is grateful they go a different direction, and the story becomes an internal consideration of the couple’s thoughts and feelings about relationships and about each other, the danger of the ferocious dog just outside consciousness.

It’s interesting that the man, whose name is Simon, is always referred to as “the man,” by both the narrator and the woman. Similarly, the woman, whose name is Mariella, is always known as “the woman.” They’ve had sex, but the narrator notes that “they were not yet intimate.” Everything feels more like a rehearsal for the real thing. Despite moments of joy, they each have major hangups, and as the hike continues we don’t really think they’re going to last long.

Mostly, it feels that each is in this relationship because, at this late stage of life, they feel that perhaps it would be best to settle. The woman, at forty-one years old, “wanted a relationship tha seemed mature, if not old and settled, from the start.” The man, a scientist who is, so the woman suspects, quite a bit older, finds most of his comfort at work. He’s not sure he’s ever been in love.

Joyce Carol Oates is wonderful at revealing their insecurities and vulnerabilities they’d rather keep covered, and we feel the tension as the hike continues. The woman wonders, with more and more force, whether the man is capable of caring for her at all. He wonders the same thing:

The man was a little annoyed by the woman. Yet he was drawn to her. He hoped to like her more than he did — he hoped to adore her. He had been very lonely for too long and had come to bitterly resent the solitude of his life.

As we might expect, the couple runs into the big dog again, and it leads the woman to reevaluate her role in their relationship. When once she resented the fact that he followed her closely down the mountain because he “wanted to watch over the woman, whom he didn’t trust not to hurt herself,” by the end of the story she thinks, “In their relationship, the man would always be the stronger; she would resent his superior strength, yet she would be protected by it. She might defy it, but she would not oppose it.” This, in turn, leads her to crave the relationship, even though the man’s breathing is wet and heavy like a big dog.

It seems a bit on the nose.

I’m still trying to figure out whether I liked this story. I can certainly say that I enjoyed it and Joyce Carol Oates shows again that a healthy dose of telling rather than showing can be as invigorating and captivating as the best show-don’t-tell moments. I’m genuinely at a loss, though, as to whether the story is saying much more than what is standing out on the surface. I hoped that skimming through it again in the process of writing this post would help, but it hasn’t. My favorite aspect is the refusal to see the characters as more than “the man” or “the woman” and how that relates to their own thoughts about their relationship. Other than that, it held my interest but didn’t, in the end, deliver much.

Happily waiting for your comments to help me see more.

Betsy

Trevor, your invitation to disagree with you regarding “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates interests me very much! I believe you wondered if anyone thought the story would stick. For me, I feel sure it will.

But a warning for the rest of you: read this wonderful story first — otherwise I will give away too much.

First of all, I thought the mastiff-owner double image worked very well. There is the suggestion of rape in the language that describes the pair. The young man’s calves “bulged” with muscle, and his dog has “bulging, glassy eyes.” The dog is massive, and Oates specifically says the dog’s “long, large tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber.” To further the sense of sexual assault and menace, Oates insists that the dog’s “breathing was damply audible, unsettling,” an intensified intimation of inappropriate intrusion. The animal wheezes and pants. That the young man in the hoodie who is its owner runs away after the attack furthers the sense of rape.

The mastiff-owner pair also mesh with the two main characters. Like the trail, they circle round and round each other. The man and woman are in the sunlight, while the dog and its owner are lying in wait, so to speak, until dark, past the time when the sun has set “like a broken bloody egg.”

Oates has given the story a neat structure, with the dog-owner assaulting us first, middle, and last in the story. During the attack, we fear that either the man or woman or both will die as a result. What works extremely well for me is the story’s last paragraph. Although the man is in the hospital, they have survived the attack, and the woman has a flashback:

To her horror, she realized she was hearing a panting sound, a wet-chuffing breath, somewhere beside her, or below her on the trail, in the gathering dusk, waiting.

The woman, Mariella, realizes that being safe in the hospital is not the end of it; death is always in the wings, waiting. The horror of this mirrors the uncertainties of commitment and at the same time makes commitment a necessity.

The story awakens in me memories of two encounters with mastiffs – one when I was hiking alone on Mount Norwottuck, a popular park in the Holyoke Range. I had the distinct sense of threat, and I knew the owner of the dog was aware of how I felt. Why else would a person take a mastiff up Norwottuck? You can’t help it — a brush with a mastiff feels like a brush with death. Death by dog is not unheard of in the United States. Recently, a woman jogger was killed in California by dogs, and was, in fact, the fifth person to be killed by dogs in California in the past two years.

But the story also awakens in me the memory of myth: a three-headed dog was stationed at the edge of the Greek underworld, its purpose to prevent anyone escaping back to life.

The image of the mastiff and his owner would be merely a parlor trick, just a horror story, except that Oates uses it to talk about human vulnerability and fear of commitment and its unknowns. In a way, the mastiff and its owner are like a pair in a marriage: at any moment one may bolt on the other. That is just a fact of life.

Parallel to the dog attack in “Mastiff” is the struggle both Mariella and Simon are having with themselves and each other and the fact that marriage — or commitment — requires surrender to a state of vulnerability.

Mariella herself hates to feel vulnerable; even a backpack makes her feel “burdened”; she carries the vulnerability her run-away father created in her like a burden. When she looks at Simon, she thinks, “how self-contained . . . how maddening!” She is troubled by the way Simon creates in her an impossible situation of simultaneously opposing emotions: “At times, [Mariella] quite liked his air of authority; at other times, she resented it.”

Throughout, Oates refers to Mariella as “the woman” and Simon as “the man,” and Oates openly refers to a man-woman issue — that men are generally physically stronger than women. “She would resent his superior strength, yet she would be protected by it. She might defy it, but she wouldn’t oppose it.” Later, she realizes that a man’s strength might ebb away, and that her task might be to help him. I am touched by this. My husband is 70, and his strength amazes me. Mariella’s thoughts on the topic of strength interest me.

At its crux, the story poses the idea that surrendering to another person feels threatening — as if the surrender is a loss, or as if the surrender has been mandated by an attack, or as if the surrender might actually be a rape. When this story begins, “Technically, the man and the woman were ‘lovers,’ but they were not yet intimate.” That is, they have not yet reached a point where they would surrender to swearing to protect each other, or risking that they might hurt each other, or both. The moment the man risks his life to save the woman is the same one as when the woman carries the man to help. This is intimacy — the saving.

I have to say here that one of the ways the story feels powerful to me is the way the dog-owner pair and the couple of lovers are wedded to each other: two faces of the human condition of commitment.

Finally, though, (and this is where you and I, Trevor, may really part company) Oates talks to me woman to woman about what it is to be a woman and to choose to surrender to a man. Oates, being Oates, poses it as a dangerous operation. She says, “In the new man’s company, the woman felt a rare hopefulness.” And on that promise, she decides to choose to love him. That is just magnificent. Falling in love is one thing. Choosing to love is another.

Woman to woman, there is another aspect of the story that fascinates me: the flashback. The act of choosing to love is one that must be made over and over, and it’s always in dangerous territory. It’s a “task,” a “duty” of love, and it’s made in spite of, or because of, the dark breath of death that waits just below you on the trail. There they are, safe in the hospital, Mariella can hear the man’s wet breathing, and then in a moment, what she hears is the panting of the waiting dog of death. I liked that, though I know you felt it to be too neat, Trevor. I just liked all the ways the story insisted that being human is being alive in spite of being in the midst of death and threat.

I also couldn’t read this story without being reminded of Oates’s memoir from 2010 in the New Yorker, “A Widow’s Story.” In that account, she remembers a car accident in which she and her husband almost died, but didn’t, and which occasioned such treasuring of each other afterwards. And yet, she admits, their marriage wasn’t perfect (her husband never read her novels). As she says in her interview this week in Page Turner, people are imperfect.

Curiously, a writer also has the strange proposition of having to surrender to her reader. The reader may refuse to read the work altogether, like Oates’s husband. Or the reader may willfully misunderstand or even attack what the writer has written, as did Janet Maslin and Julian Barnes when they reviewed the book version of A Widow’s Story. (They thought Oates broke her contract with her readers when she didn’t admit she had re-married before she finished the book. She offered an appendix in the next printing. But, in a way, “Mastiff” answers them. She tells of a man and woman newly aware of their own separate loneliness, and tells how it only took them seven weeks to know that the moment of commitment was at hand.)

In the Page-Turner interview with Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Treisman remarks, “There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the notion of likability in fictional characters — and whether female writers are under pressure to consider it more than male writers are.”

Oates replies that we are all flawed and imperfect, and that she can “identify with — all sorts of people.”

I find this question, and Oates’s answer, really interesting. Isn’t the question less that we dislike characters who are unlikable and more that we dislike characters who are unbelievable?

In this case, Treisman indicates that she finds Mariella unlikable.

But to me, Mariella is compelling because she is so believable. What I find believable is that it matters to her to know that she can choose to love Simon. The circumstances make Mariella and her choice all the more believable — that she and Simon have both been threatened by a strange conjunction of evil, accident and possible death. Within that conjunction, they can see this possibility: that they have it in them to survive if they submit to the uncertainties and frictions and dangers of a relationship, if they can choose to save each other.

I very much like “Mastiff” and thank Joyce Carol Oates for writing it. So yes, Trevor, I do think the story sticks. But that may have more to do with me being a woman, and also with me being closer than you to the dog that guards the underworld — close enough I can hear it panting.

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