Of Randomly Savage Human MoleculesnJoyce Carol Oates: A SentimentalnEducation; E. P. Button; New York.nby Betsy Clarkenxiducation of any kind would seem tonbe the last thing Miss Oates’s charactersnneed. By and large extensively degreed,neven at the beginning of these six storiesnthey have already experienced their sharenof emotional trauma. Middle-aged ClairenFalk, a Friends-of-the-Symphony type inn”Queen of the Night,” has been divorcednby her husband of 26 years. In addition,nshe has raised an obnoxious son to adulthood.nWesley Sterne, a philosophy professornin “The Precipice,” has been hospitalizednseveral times after initiatingnfistfights against stronger strangers. Inn”The Tryst,” John Reddinger, a prominentnbusinessman, is still affected by hisnattempt years ago to pick up a womannwho turned out to be a man. DanielnSeeley, program director of a culturalnradio station, has by chance witnessednone man blowing off the head of anothernin “A Middle-Class Education.” PoetnEleanor Gerhardt of “In the Autumn ofnthe Year” recalls a devastating love affairnwith a sadistic professor who used to slapnher around. And premedical studentnDuncan Sargent, in the title story, hasnexperienced a nervous breakdown as anteen-ager.nAll that is the good news; the worstnis yet to come. During the course ofnthese stories Claire Falk marries a drugnaddict many years her junior who, by thenend of the story, is wearing her negligee.nWesley Sterne, a modern-day Man of LanMancha, is presumably beaten to deathntrying singlehandedly to defend thenhonor of a girl. John Reddinger’s mistressntries to commit suicide in his personalnbathroom during his wife’s absence.nAfter witnessing the shooting,nDaniel Seeley is unable to function fornMiss Clarke is a law student at the Universitynof Illinois and a part-time writer.nmonths. In her old age, Eleanor Gerhardtnis subjected to a vitriolic monologue bynher late lover’s son regarding the livesnshe ruined. And Duncan Sargent seducesnhis 14-year-old cousin and thennbeats her to death.nMiss Oates is a competent storyteller.nIn addition to her provocative plotting,nshe can set a mood with an economy ofnwords approaching scientific notation.nHer recollections of familiar emotionsntranscribe poignantly onto the page. Thenthoughts of Antoinette, Duncan Sargent’snsoon-to-be-deceased cousin, willnreveal the most intimate insecurities ofnadolescence. “Am I close to dying, shenthought. Sometimes she sat up in bed,nterrified that her heart might stop. Whynnot.’ Couldn’t it? What kept it goingnfrom one beat to the next.’ ” A number ofnher figures reflect the ironic dispositionnof John Reddinger: “Remarkable, henthought. Life, living. In this body. Now.”nUnfortunately, Joyce Carol Oatesnknows American life in the way thatnWillie Nelson knows “The Star-SpanglednBanner.” Much of the phrasing isnsure, but some of the content is missing.nNotes Claire Falk as her young husbandnsleeps, “It crossed her mind that shencould smother him, with the pillow. Ifnshe chose. She was capable of a singlengreat act of strength and he, surprised,nbereft in that other world, would havenbeen powerless to withstand her.” All ofnMiss Oates’s primary characters eithernperform, contemplate or witness anviolent act.n”Instinct and reason, marks of twonnatures,” Wesley Sterne recites from hisnhospital bed. In most of these stories thencharacters express a concern, despitentheir personal histories, for followingnthe reasonable path. Joyce Carol Oatesnknows it’s no use. To her, human beingsnare mere amoebas continuously bangingnagainst the sides of the universal Petrindish. The scenery of naturalism is everywhere.nCharacters blame “fate” or “bad luck”nfor their plights, which, admittedly, arenquite extraordinary. “I’m not to blame,”ncries Eleanor Gerhardt. “What had happenednwas an event, it was out of herncontrol …” thinks Claire Falk. WesleynSterne “knows, he knows, something isngoing to happen, he is being propelledn”. . . .sht’ may well h,iL’ Ciipiiiit-tl ihc- ^pi^iI ot tlic land.”n— iVt’ii- Ytirh limes nook Reviewnnd Lh is wroii!’, P.jri ni ilicj iHX’l’nlem is her relentless focus on personalntrauma. As in soap operas, the charactersnare cast as successful professionals,nthough they have spent their lives asnthralls of emotional turmoil. “Do younlove me.'” is the refrain of these stories.nFrequently the question is followed byninternal monologues that begin, “Butnwhat was love ….'”nTheir skepticism deserves credit.nThese characters are among the mostnunlovable to come along since In ColdnBlood. When they’re not picking fightsnor beating to death close relatives,nthey’re either performing dress rehearsalsnfor suicides or plotting murder.nnn.” \M ,11 ihi:nseashore Duncan Sargent observes,n”One cannot control anything.”nNo need to look for motivation, then.n(Why, for example, would a beautiful,nwealthy, middle-aged woman marry andrug-addicted contemporary of her son.’)nOr culpability. (Duncan Sargent hasnbeen disturbed since at least his tenthnbirthday.) Reasons and responsibilities,nconsidered so indigenous to humannbeings and societies as to form the basesnof their legal systems, are curiosities innthis world ruled by randomly savagenmolecules. Alas, the educations of thesencharacters serve only to give them a falsensense of security.nJuly/August 1981n