July 1, 2013


By Joyce Carol Oates
~5200 words

A woman's companion intervenes when a mastiff turns on her.

The main character, whose name is Mariella but is always referred to as "the woman," is hiking with a man she has recently begun dating (the man's name is revealed as Simon toward the end of the story). As she hikes, the woman reflects on her ambivalence toward Simon and on her own insecurities. One such insecurity, a fear of dogs she has harbored since childhood, is triggered by a mastiff she encounters on the hiking trail. When the dog later attempts to attack her, Simon intervenes and is critically wounded. The ER doctors save him, and the woman is left to reevaluate her earlier ambivalence.

The story's strength lies in the way in which the woman, who is not a particularly sympathetic character, is forced to confront her prior feelings toward Simon. Unfortunately, various elements undermine the force of this denouement. First, the reference to the characters as "the man" and "the woman," even though their names are revealed (the woman's at the beginning and the man's at the end), is a bit baffling, generating a narrative coldness that retards character development. Second, the POV is rather lazy toward the beginning, drifting from the main character for no good reason ("The friend, closer to the man than to the woman, had said to the man…"; "The man was a little annoyed by the woman. Yet he was drawn to her…" etc.). Third, the woman's canine phobia feels like a convenient stock element—do we need her to be terrified of dogs in order to be attacked by one?—and the choice of a mastiff seems particularly stereotypical (and a bit unfair to the breed, which is not as prone to attack as some others).

Finally, Joyce's language is not at its finest here, from awkward images (the sun sets like a "broken bloody egg") to cliched language (the woman's eyelids "were so heavy she could barely keep them open") to an over-reliance on adverbs (the dog barks furiously, the woman recalls longingly and listens avidly, the man feels sharply, the dog's master shouts futilely, the woman's heart beats erratically, etc.).

"Mastiff" has a good story to tell, but it is burdened by conventional language and unsatisfying narrative choices.

Barely satisfactory.

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