Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood? by Joyce Carol Oates, 1972

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by Joyce Carol Oates, 1972

No single story can typify Joyce Carol Oates's enormously varied short fiction, but "Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood?" (from Marriages and Infidelities, a volume thematically concerned with variations on betrayal) is typical in the sense that it could hardly have been written by anyone else. Its collocation of sex and violence, its evoking of the fevered Vietnam War era and of the trappings of U.S. pop culture, its picture of psychosis as something recognizable, almost familiar, and above all, the nonjudgmental distance the narrator maintains—all indicate that we are in Oates's America. It is a place both banal and lurid, where intimacy and impersonality somehow coexist, creating an explosive mixture that frequently does in fact explode.

The typical Oatesian combination of intimacy with her characters and nonjudgmental detachment from them is especially functional in this story, which is essentially about ways of knowing. It is a love story, a powerful one, but even the lovers hardly like one another. Oberon, the FBI sharpshooter, is convinced that "no one knew Marian Vernon except him," but Marian's half-hysterical question " Did you ever slip on red blood yourself? " epitomizes a fundamental separation even from him. Emotional contact between people is an impossibility; even physical contact is fenced around by pain and danger. The first meeting of the lovers Marian and Oberon takes place across a locked and chained door, one of several closed or slightly cracked apertures in the story. The extent of failed communication is revealed in a half-comical but startling way by the curious incident in which Marian asks Oberon how much his wife "knows." He thinks she is concerned that the wife may "sense" their adulterous love affair, but Marian refers to the impossibility of the wife's—or anyone else's—understanding what the killing of another human being—of Severin—felt like, literally or figuratively.

The two sensory modes of knowing in the world of the story are tactile and optical. The first of these is Marian's mode. For her, one knows about red blood by touching it, slipping on it. She never reads; even when her picture and Oberon's appear in the newspaper she traces their outlines with her fingertips. In the story's first paragraph she shuts her eyes to invite her lover's stare. The blinds of their dim-lighted love nest are closed, like the shutter of a camera; "here he had to see her with his hands." From her end of the long trajectory leading back from Severin's body, pressed against her own, to Oberon's eye, rifle, and sniperscope, she insists that " I felt the kick myself. I felt it. I felt you. " This is a story in which normally abstract metaphors become startlingly palpable: red-bloodedness, guts (Severin's bowel problems), getting a kick out of something.

Oberon's way of knowing (and Severin's, too, though in a more ambiguous way) is through the eyes, and typically through artificial, technology-aided images and closeups. Oberon is proud of his "perfect" vision. Unlike Marian, he is a reader, and although he never actually writes his plaintive letter to the celebrity folk singer Jacob Appleman, Oberon obviously thinks in such telespatial terms. Both he and Severin are associated repeatedly with optical and visual instruments: a magnifying telescopic rifle sight (which turns physical distance into simulated closeness), a television set, a movie screen. Severin imagines his image on such a screen as "blown up, enlarged, exaggerated." (His $1.98 aviator's glasses are a ludicrous but revealing parody of such optical sophistication.) Oberon defines his identity through his presence in an imagined group photograph. When he is not in Marian's physical presence she slips "out of focus." The distance between Marian's tactile mode and the male visual mode in the story is epitomized in a small, telling detail from one of the love scenes: "a strand of her hair stung his eye."

The most urgent problem in the story is the relation between love and violence. Marian and Oberon are drawn to each other exactly because of their joint involvement, from opposite ends, in the gory incident. Sexual parallels emerge in the phrasing and images: Oberon's sharpshooter eyes are "like muscles, tensing, erect, … getting to know [the stranger's face] closely, intimately." Severin dies orgasmically: "She caught the fullness of his weight …, his body gone heavy, the blood gushing from him and onto her." In the work of most other writers, it seems fair to say, the connection of the killing with lovemaking would amount to an ironically moralizing, probably cynical, commentary on love or society, and although there is nothing to keep us from reading the Oates story that way it is by no means clear that we should do so. In "Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood?" sex and violence are not so much analogous as, almost, synonymous; Oberon's wrestling in sexual play with Marian blends with a demonstration of how easily he could have overcome the less potent Severin, who also had once pressed up against Marian in an intimacy that was "an embrace and yet not an embrace." This powerful story probes deeper than social commentary on the Vietnam era, deeper even than commentary on American society in general. Without registering overt disturbance it says something disturbing about the ultimate—and mysterious—recesses of human motivation.

—Brian Wilkie