“The Mutants” by Joyce Carol Oates


Still catching up on my short story reading project, I drew then ten of hearts today and was led to the Joyce Carol Oates story, The Mutants. I acquired this story when I bought her collection “I Am No One You Know” and other Stories. A couple years back, for one of my old book club’s annual “short story months,” someone had initially picked the disturbing Oates story, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye” but later changed her mind. After I had already bought the book. 🙂 No matter. I was simply left with another batch of short stories to explore, and I’ve read maybe half of them now. I have scheduled myself to finish this collection in 2012 though, so I guess I’d better get cracking on the remaining ones too.


I have learned in my previous reading of Joyce Carol Oates that she pulls no punches and can write about anything, even something horrible, in a frank and matter of fact manner. This story was no exception. Based upon the title alone I had no idea what to expect from her with a story named, “The Mutants.” In fact, you probably could’ve given me a hundred guesses and I still wouldn’t have come up with “something related to 9/11″…

The protagonist of the story is a “dreamy, beautiful young woman of that genre, American Midwestern Blond, which indicates not so much a physical as a spiritual type.” Sounds like someone I’d like to know, but we don’t even learn her name in the pages that follow. Her name is not important to the impact of the story, which is one of those that have that great quality of indefinite-ness which allows a motivated reader to perhaps add some of the finishing touches himself.

The young woman is returning to her high-rise apartment in lower Manhattan one morning when she is shocked to see from the corner of her eye the startling image of a low-flying commercial jet – a prelude to the next instant when she is knocked to her knees from the power of the nearby impact. The rest of this very short story deals with her immediate reactions to the disaster. Readers are not told, directly, if she survives the coming hours or not (it seems there is damage to her building as well,) but we do learn how the story got its name:

“She was hollow-eyed and gaunt yet wakeful, no longer the dreamy-eyed blond. A mutant being, primed to survive. Were there not undersea creatures that acquired an extra set of gills, eyes on stalks of either side of their blade-thin heads, cunning in the desperation of survival…”

I presume Oates is saying that, in a way, the 9/11 attacks made mutants of us all (mutants in the simple, pure, non “sci-fi” meaning of something changed). This was a powerful story packed into just eight pages.