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Joyce Carol Oates Against Nature Essayists

In a literary tradition populated by many figures known for a single play or a handful of painstakingly wrought novels, Oates is notable first for her consistently prodigious output. Hundreds of stories and poems, printed and anthologized in a wide variety of publications, and dozens of novels, novellas, plays, essays, prefaces, and reviews have come from her pen, with an equally wide variety of settings, themes, genres, and styles. This productivity has even been a source of some criticism, inspiring suspicions that Oates works too fast and carelessly, that she lacks the basic self-censorship necessary to a writer. Oates, unaffected by criticism, has never slowed her pace. While some of her novels seem more felt than planned, and some of her stories inevitably overlap, Oates is a writer whose meanings can be appreciated cumulatively and whose craft and imagination are beyond question.

A more serious criticism is that her writing, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, is too violent, too dark, too obsessed with blood and death. (In 1981, in an essay in The New York Times Book Review titled “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?,” Oates branded such criticism blatantly sexist and asserted the female novelist’s right to depict nature as she sees it.) A typical Oates novel may feature mass murder, rape, suicide, arson, an automobile crash, or an autopsy, portrayed with detachment and graphic detail. Such violence is less a literal portrayal of the author’s experience of life (though her great grandfather committed suicide in a rage after trying to kill his wife, Oates’s own life has been relatively sedate) than an expression of the violence she sees beneath the surface of American life.

One of Oates’s primary concerns is the shape of American identity in the twentieth century. Her novels often trace the lives of prototypical Americans and can be seen as paradigms of their collective history. Very aware of her parents’ experiences through the 1930’s, Oates often places the Depression at the beginning, chronologically if not narratively, of the stories she tells, for that is the source of much of the history of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. (In Bellefleur, she goes further back to trace all of American history through a single family chronicle.) Many of her works are set in an imaginary Eden County, modeled on the Erie and Niagara counties of western New York. As the name suggests, Eden County is a mythical paradise where Oates depicts the American loss of innocence. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, What I Lived For, We Were the Mulvaneys, and Broke Heart Blues continued to mine this theme in this setting in the 1990’s.

Oates documents, and at times seems to prophesy, this loss of innocence through a pattern reflecting the American national heritage. This historical paradigm involves derivation from a strong familial tradition, be it the migrant workers of A Garden of Earthly Delights or the patricians of The Assassins: A Book of Hours; dislocation, often violent and senseless, from that home or tradition; the search for parent figures; the lack of fixed identity; acceptance of the American Dream, with all of its materialistic manifestations; emergence from poverty and anonymity; the obsession that arrives with single-minded pursuits; and the vacuity and transparency of contemporary American modes of being and communicating. Black Water, in 1992, was a thinly veiled retelling of the 1969 tragedy at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, where the young Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the car of Senator Edward Kennedy, while Blonde, which won the National Book Award in 2001, was a fictional reworking of the life of Marilyn Monroe.

This paradigm is not inviolate, nor does it inform all of Oates’s work. One of her most noted novels, them, is drawn quite faithfully from the life experience of a woman Oates knew while teaching in Detroit, and Marya: A Life (1986) is based to an extent on her mother’s and her own early lives. Conversely, the stories in Marriages and Infidelities (1972) are modeled on (and even named for) earlier stories by acknowledged masters, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead” (1914) and Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; “The Metamorphosis,” 1936), and their appreciation can depend on familiarity with—indeed, “marriage” to—their predecessors. A number of her works, including the satirical collection The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (1974), are set in academic institutions not unlike Oates’s own universities of Windsor and Princeton.

Whatever the setting and the model for dramatic movement, certain themes are central. Oates is fascinated with the multiple facets of individual personality, and her characters often undergo dramatic upheavals and transformations (which are larger metaphorical expressions of the violence of modern life). They are constantly questioning who and where they are, constantly feeling detached from their bodies and their immediate experiences of the world. Nothing is certain or fixed. In such a whirlwind, emotion and sensation are all one can really know and trust; having a name; as the fundamental unit of identity, becomes of paramount importance.

Many of Oates’s novels and stories, therefore, based in the emotional reality of a character, have a surrealistic quality. Oates is fascinated with dreams; not only do her characters relate theirs, but also the lines between perception, imagination, and dream or nightmare often become hazy. Because objective reality is unavailable, people become trapped within their own personalities, and connections between them are often tenuous and false. Many of the short stories, such as “The Census-Taker” (1963), “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” (1969), “Queen of the Night” (1979), and “The Seasons” (1985), focus on jarring and unsuccessful encounters or relationships between very disparate personalities.

Generally, Oates’s style is controlled and detached; her narrative voices do not cater to the reader but demand that the reader make necessary connections and assumptions. Her works are sometimes challenging puzzles that require careful attention. She is a skilled technician who uses precise and explicit language and portrays personality through detailed sketching of both interior and exterior reality. Not surprisingly, the imagery Oates employs is often violent: exposed flesh, broken glass, explosions, floods, fire. All these elements—the detachment, the ambiguity, the detail, the imagery—combine to create an uncertain world where reality is constantly reconceived and re-imagined through the window of perception, and truth—historical, subjective, and psychic—is ever-changing.

A Garden of Earthly Delights

First published: 1967, revised 2003

Type of work: Novel

A woman’s quest to escape her impoverished past bequeaths to her son a world full of power but empty of meaning and identity.

A Garden of Earthly Delights is a novel that portrays the American economic system and the ills suffered both by those who fail and by those who succeed in it. Oates tells the story of Clara, from the day of her birth among migrant laborers to her waning years watching television in a nursing home, and the men—father, lovers, son—who define her life experience.

The title is taken from a dramatic triptych by the fifteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. The three panels of the original Garden of Earthly Delights illustrate Eve’s creation in paradise, the debauchery of her descendants, and humankind’s punishment in hell. Oates’s novel mirrors this structure in its three sections. The first, titled “Carleton,” focuses on a bitter migrant laborer named Carleton Walpole as he takes his growing family from state to state, struggling to control his rage and maintain his lost sense of dignity. Clara, the third and favorite of his five children, learns to look beyond the distress and misery of their migrant existence and eventually runs off with a virtual stranger to find a better life.

The second section, “Lowry,” follows Clara through adolescence. The stranger, an enigmatic drifter named Lowry, sets her up in a small southern town, but he is involved in shady activities and soon disappears, spurning her obsessive love and unknowingly leaving her pregnant. Clara, a survivor, has attracted the attentions of a wealthy landowner, Curt Revere; she becomes his mistress, leads him to believe he is the father of her child, accepts his boundless generosity, and, with the death of his ailing wife, becomes the second Mrs. Revere.

Now established in comfort and wealth, having achieved a perfect vision of the American Dream, Clara consolidates her power. The third section of the novel, “Swan,” focuses on Clara’s son Steven (whom she calls Swan) and the pressures he feels growing up an outsider among someone else’s wealth, destined to inherit it but unable to make sense of his destiny or to fulfill his mother’s exaggerated expectations for him.

Within this structure, the narrative moves chronologically but with a greatly modulated pace. Oates relates individual scenes or periods in the lives of her characters with slow and careful accuracy and feeling, and then shifts the action months or years ahead, establishing the passage of time casually with age or year references. Such shifts highlight the suddenness of the events and changes that have occurred. This irregular flow serves to emphasize, as if microscopically, certain telling moments or encounters. Carleton’s rage explodes during an arm-wrestling match, and he kills his best friend, an event that Clara recalls throughout her life. A jaunt into a nearby town where Clara impulsively steals a flag, her first night with Lowry, and her decision to run away are vividly portrayed and establish the fearlessness and pride that will bring tragedy in later life. A pivotal encounter comes at the end of the second section when, after years of silence, Lowry shows up at Clara’s house to reclaim her: She does not love Revere, and she feels a flood of emotion at the sight of Lowry, but her resolution to accumulate power at any cost is too firm, and she sends her former lover—and her only hope for true happiness—away forever.

Swan, however, only three years old at the time, is affected by Lowry—by some deep instinct of his own paternity—and the knowledge of that ominous visitor stays with him. Swan is not at home with Revere and his rightful sons, for Swan’s true identity has been sacrificed to Clara’s lust for power. Though she acts with his future supremacy in mind, she cannot understand his psychic needs, and, in the novel’s ultimate violent act, he refuses the power she has achieved for him and renders the struggles of her life meaningless.

Clara’s is a very American story, for her ascent and accomplishments reach a point of diminishing returns, but she refuses to relent. Set against a subtly drawn backdrop of national events from the 1920’s through the 1960’s—the Depression, the renewal of industrial prosperity, the transformation of race relations and erosion of class structures in the South—Clara’s story takes on wider repercussions as an American fable, with implicit commentary on the misguided motives and empty values of American political and materialistic ethics.


First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

A young man undergoes a series of transformations as he comes to maturity and strives for identity in a dreamlike American landscape.

Wonderland bears certain rough similarities to A Garden of Earthly Delights. It follows three generations of a family through stages of rage, searching, and emptiness. It offers critical comment on the lust for knowledge and power. It spans a particular period of American political and economic history. It moves irregularly, with sudden shifts and changes. It also draws on another work of art as a model. Wonderland, is, however, stylistically much less naturalistic, its commentary more satirical, and its concern for the issues of dislocation and identity more fully focused on a single central character, Jesse.

As the title suggests, Oates used Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) as a thematic source for her novel. Like Alice, Jesse bursts into new worlds and must deal with characters that verge on caricatures and that parallel the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, and others. Oates has taken Carroll’s thematic framework and applied it sharply and imaginatively to the American scene.

The novel begins abruptly: Fourteen-year-old Jesse Harte returns home one day to find his family murdered by his crazed father. Jesse escapes through a window (like Alice’s “looking glass”) and is orphaned by his father’s suicide. Emotionally numbed, Jesse embarks on a passive search for replacements—for a father figure, for a home, for a viable belief system, for a name that is truly his. He lives first with his silent, bitter grandfather (taking the surname Vogel), then with uncomprehending cousins, then in an orphanage.

Book 1 of the novel is titled “Variations on an American Hymn,” and most of it details Jesse’s life with the Pedersens, his adoptive family of freaks. The father is a dogmatic, morphine-addicted doctor/mystic, the mother an obsequious alcoholic, the son a blithering piano virtuoso, the daughter an angry mathematical genius. The Pedersens are all grotesquely obese, and with them Jesse expands accordingly. He takes their name and their ways but never gives himself completely to the doctor’s maniacal egoism. In the end, after helping Mrs. Pedersen in an aborted attempt to escape, Jesse is disowned, dislocated, and, again, nameless.

He goes to college at the University of Michigan to study medicine and, an excellent student, falls under the tutelage of Drs. Cady and Perrault and an errant scientist and poet named T. W. Monk (whose poem “Wonderland” provides the epigraph to Oates’s novel). Each of the men expresses a distinct and limited worldview—empiricism, behaviorism, nihilism—which Jesse adopts to a point but is unable to accept fully or embody.

He becomes a brilliant surgeon, marries Cady’s daughter Helene, and fathers two daughters, but the marriage is unfulfilling, and Jesse becomes inexplicably obsessed with a woman he encounters at a chance moment in the emergency room—Reva Denk, whose name suggests “think/dream.” Book 2, titled “The Finite Passing of an Infinite Passion,” ends with Jesse’s impulsive decision to begin a new life with Reva, and, once she agrees, his equally impulsive decision to return at once to Helene.

Book 3, “Dreaming America,” alternates between Jesse’s search for his runaway daughter Shelly and her angry, enigmatic letters home declaring insistently that his pursuits—of knowledge, of love, of wealth, of metaphysical supremacy—have ruined her life. Her letters contain veiled hints, and when Jesse finally locates her among a community of draft dodgers in Toronto, the novel ends on a reservedly optimistic note.

Throughout Wonderland, Oates’s language and imagery are palpable and graphic. Certain scenes are striking: Hilda Pedersen gluttonously devouring chocolates during a mathematical competition; Helene’s obsession with her own reproductive capacities turning to panic during a gynecological examination; a man, who turns out to be Reva’s lover, arriving at Jesse’s hospital self-mutilated; later, Jesse symbolically mutilating himself with a rusty razor before abandoning Reva. Such scenes reinforce the thematic presence of science and medicine as means of knowing and experiencing life. There are recurrent perceptions of living organisms as reduced to their simplest form, protoplasm, and as beings that emerge from and consume other beings. The concept of “homeostasis”—the natural tendency toward balance—which Dr. Pedersen asks Jesse to explain one evening at the dinner table, provides a standard for the desirable pattern of functioning that Jesse, not to mention the gallery of characters that surround him, cannot achieve.

Wonderland—which is also the name of the new shopping mall where the dissatisfied Helene meets her lover—is an Oatesian world of unnatural proportions where, like the Pedersens’ obesity, ideas, emotions, and aspirations are often ridiculously reduced or magnified. The portraits Oates creates are exaggerated, narcissistic, and often very comical.

The only exception is Jesse, who lacks an inherent personality and becomes a reflection or embodiment of the people and ideas around him. Thus, the other characters take on the dimensions of allegory: They become emotional or philosophical options for him to review and try, but his movement through and experience of them, like his movement from name to name and home to home, leaves him at the novel’s end only barely less innocent and passive than he was at its start. Ultimately, his search for identity and longing for a sense of solidity in his existence are the only reliable facts of his life.

The Assassins: A Book of Hours

First published: 1975

Type of work: Novel

After the supposed assassination of a prominent politician, his brothers and widow struggle to find meaning in their lives.

The Assassins: A Book of Hours is perhaps Oates’s darkest and most pessimistic novel. It takes its subtitle from a canonical book that ends with the Office of the Dead, and it is concerned with characters mourning or obsessed with death.

The four characters central to the novel are Andrew Petrie, a former senator from New York and outspoken political observer; his brothers Hugh and Stephen; and his widow, Yvonne. Andrew himself is dead and appears only through memory or flashback; Hugh, Yvonne, and Stephen provide the viewpoints for the three parts of the novel, which are accordingly named for them.

“Hugh” begins enigmatically, and only later does it become evident that his diffuse and convoluted first-person narrative takes place within his conscious mind as he lies inexpressive and paralyzed in a hospital bed. Hugh is a bitter and sardonic political cartoonist who has devoted his life to hating and lampooning all that his successful older brother represents. His character—greedy, impotent, hypochondriac, alcoholic—is expressed through his obsessive rantings as he recounts his experience during the year following Andrew’s death. Without Andrew, Hugh’s life lacks the pivot on which it had turned. Consumed with a desire to discover his brother’s assassins and convinced that Yvonne holds...

(The entire section is 7820 words.)

When Joyce Carol Oates, the 77-year-old author of well over 100 books, told the New Yorker last year that she thought of herself as “transparent”, before adding “I’m not sure I really have a personality”, the admission felt scandalous. We live in a time when the concept of personhood has been enshrined, in the monetising parlance of late capitalism, as “my personal brand”. To posit its non-existence is a kind of taboo. Especially if you happen to be someone often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters”.

Oates, a five-time Pulitzer finalist, might be “very intensely interested in a portrait of America”, but clearly she has no truck with the ego-vaunting, personality driven paradigm of contemporary celebrity. She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced gothic streak colouring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who frequently experience sexual shame. In the afterword to her 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, she seems to find a human truth within horror: “We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”

At her home in rural New Jersey she serves mugs of herbal tea and when her bengal kitten, Cleopatra, settles against my leg, Oates says: “I see you have quite a conquest there. She assumes you’re here to meet her.”

I am here, of course, to talk to Oates about herself and her work, but “I’m not so interested in myself … ” she says. “I remember somebody saying that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton loved to go bar-hopping in New York, and the last thing they wanted to talk about was themselves – they were more interested in these characters in the bars. That’s the way I think many writers are. I feel that way. And it’s often said about Shakespeare that he was transparent, and Keats that he had this negative capability to be interested in other things.”

Specifically, I’m here to speak to her about her new novel The Man Without a Shadow, her 44th under her own name to go alongside her many collections of stories, essays and plays, her memoirs and her novels written under pseudonyms. It concerns the relationship between an amnesiac, Elihu Hoopes, and a neuroscientist, Margot Sharpe, for whom Hoopes is both enduring scientific subject and lifelong love object. She is a woman who “can’t bear herself except as a vessel of work”. She is also a person who wonders, “What if I have no ‘person’ – what will I do then?”

Oates is straightforward about the personal parallels. “I very much identify with Margot.” And not just for her workaholic tendencies and personality doubt. “I think,” she ventures, “we’re continually inventing narratives and filling in blanks and misremembering in ways that bolster our interpretation of something. So I wanted to write about this relationship between two people engaged in different memories.”

Since his memory extends no further than 70 seconds, Elihu experiences every meeting with Margot as a first. Accordingly, the novel is written entirely in the present tense, the state in which Elihu lives. In one sense then, their love is literally without foundation: how can you form any meaningful connection in a little over a minute? Yet there’s also something pure about their relationship: each encounter has the wonder of the eternally new.

“The relationship between them is always sort of unreal,” she says, “but I’m wondering if many relationships that are based on love and romance are not pretty highly charged with unreality. When you’re actually living with someone over a period of time you do get to know the person in a very complex and detailed way. But the romantic ideal is very much fraught with the possibility of conditioning people. Presenting your best self. Saying things to the other that will elicit a certain response.”

Oates was married for 47 years to Raymond J Smith, a professor and editor of the Ontario Review, which he and Oates founded together in 1974. After he died in 2008 from complications arising from pneumonia, Oates detailed her grief in an acclaimed memoir, A Widow’s Story. Soon after, she met and married Charlie Gross, a neuroscientist. Gross has been a particularly enthusiastic reader of the latest novel, which has come about, she says, directly as a consequence of writing A Widow’s Story and having to deal so rigorously with her own memory. Oates usually works on several projects at once, but it was only after she’d finished the memoir that she was able to return to writing novels and stories. “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important,” she explains.

Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important

Nevertheless: “I don’t have any anxiety about writing. Not really. It’s such a pleasure, and our lives are so relatively easy compared to people who are really out there in the world working hard and suffering. The art comes much later in civilisation, when you’ve dealt with other things like poverty and strife. People think that I write quickly, but I actually don’t. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I still working on this novel?’ It’s such a slow evolution. The point of anxiety is lost in all that. You can’t be anxious every minute of every day for eight months.”

Oates’s extraordinary work ethic – she writes eight hours a day – is such that we now have a virtual sub-genre of literature that we might call “where to start with Joyce Carol Oates”. It’s a phenomenon she mocks wryly in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982: “The list of my books ... is overwhelming. So many books! So many!”

Her very first was By the North Gate, a short story collection published in 1963, but it was her fifth book, them, a 1969 novel, that won her a National book award and confirmed Oates as a major writer. Blonde, her 2000 fictionalisation of Marilyn Monroe’s inner life, is often regarded as her best novel (it was nominated for both a Pulitzer and a National book award) although many readers first encounter her through the repeatedly anthologised “Where Are You Going Where Have You Been”, a nuanced story of a young girl’s rape, in which every sentence is taut with something lethal.

A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates – review

And then there’s her criticism: lengthy, dispassionate and thorough pieces for the New York Review of Books for which she reads each author exhaustively. She recalls, for example, “sitting in Dallas airport with all these books of Cormac McCarthy – literal books, I wasn’t reading on a Kindle – and I thought I’m dragging all these books around, and they’re so depressing! But he’s such a good writer ...” This is where I confess to her that, in this case, I failed to adhere to my usual rule of reading a writer’s entire backlist before an interview. “Well, you can’t possibly … ” she murmurs. “Maybe that was asking too much of yourself, just in general.”

The JCO completists in this world must be few. “There’s a man named Greg Johnson who’s written a biography of me,” she says. “And then maybe a few other people.”

I ask whether JM Coetzee’s job description of a writer as “a secretary of the invisible” resonates with her. (Coincidentally, Johnson’s 1999 biography is titled Invisible Writer.) “I’m obviously creating,” she counters. “Coetzee is somewhat coy ... A secretary is someone who takes notes, but a novelist has a strong will, and is creating narrative situations, bringing people together, telling a story. It’s a very wilful thing, and Coetzee is a very wilful person as an artist. There’s a will; it should be invisible. No one should really know about it.”

Then I broach the subject of another form of writing. Oates, who has nearly 140,000 Twitter followers, has become notorious for missives met with derision or collective “huh?”s. When she asked, “All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?” it prompted the actor Molly Ringwald to respond, “Okay, who got Grandma stoned?”

Nobody makes anybody write tweets, so the negative response that one gets is … basically, in a way you deserve it

Most egregious was a tweet that seemed to conflate violence against women with Islam. “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic – Egypt – natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?” I venture that this was Islamophobic. “Well, some of the reactions are sympathetic ... It’s all sort of political. But my fundamental focus is the rights of women and girls – and patriarchal religion, no matter what it is, I’m not sympathetic to. I have confessed that often on Twitter, that I don’t believe in patriarchal religion – to me it’s delusional, so if that’s Islamophobic, I suppose that could be true. It’s more like religion-phobic, or patriarchal religion-phobic. What I had to say was actually much, much longer than could be said in a tweet. But nobody makes anybody write tweets, so the negative response that one gets is … basically, in a way you deserve it. I’ve tweeted other things that I’ve meant sincerely, but sometimes people misinterpret it.”

She adds, wearily: “I don’t really care that much. I write something nice about Homeland, but a bunch of people write back to say ‘Oh, we hate Homeland, it’s Islamophobic.’ I literally don’t care. I don’t even read them. They’re sort of attacking a tweet, then it’s gone. The fickle memory of Americans is something you can rely on. The literary world is very different, and I’m much more serious about the literary world. I write these reviews which are quite long and nuanced for the New York Review of Books – that’s really like my real life.”

When I’ve thanked her and we’ve both stood up there’s a moment of mutual uncertainty. Oates surely wants to get back to work, but the car I’ve yet to summon will probably take 20 minutes to arrive. I gesture at a small floral couch by the front door and suggest I’ll just wait there. Upstairs, I can hear the sound of Oates’s contented humming receding as she moves towards her desk.

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