In the Kingdom of Joyce Carol Oates

Carolina Oates
Joyce Carol Oates with her father, Frederic Oates, 1943

Joyce Carol Oates has published three books this year—a memoir, a serious novel, and a thriller. In fact, she has written so many books in so many genres that it is entirely possible to hold opposing views of her, as both underrated and overrated, depending on the sampling of her dozens of books you may choose to read.

Let’s start with the memoir, The Lost Landscape, since I have always admired Oates’s nonfiction: her book on boxing, her essays, and her reviews. In her nonfiction we see her at her most intellectually stimulating, cultivated, and professionally insightful. Besides, a memoir promises to bring us closer to its subject, and one is naturally curious to know more about this prodigy of literary production. How does one come to be “Joyce Carol Oates”?

Her memoir, she tells us, is not meant to be complete, but “an accounting of the ways in which my life (as a writer, but not solely as a writer) was shaped in early childhood, adolescence, and a little beyond.” The landscape in the title was a rural area twenty miles from Buffalo, New York, where her parents lived in a farmhouse with her Hungarian grandparents. (Actually, they were stepparents to her mother, having taken her in when her own mother abandoned her.) Obligingly, for readers wanting to know the sources of her often violent imagination, she recounts incidents of family mayhem: one grandfather tried to kill his wife and ended up slaying himself, another was beaten to death with a poker in a barroom brawl.

It is something of a mystery to her that her own parents should have overcome such trouble to become figures of warm affection and rectitude. Central to her memoir is her “long romance of over sixty years with my beloved parents Carolina and Fred Oates.” Her celebration of them seems to have been a crucial motive in undertaking the memoir:

Yet it seems to me, though my parents are not gods, that they are extraordinary people morally; not in their accomplishments perhaps, but in themselves; in their souls, one might say. It has been a riddle of my own adulthood, as I contemplate my parents: how, given their difficult backgrounds, their impoverished and violence-ridden early lives, did they become the people they are? So many of my writer-friends speak wryly of their parents, or are critical of them, or angry at them; their adult lives are presented as triumphs over the limitations of parents, and rarely as a consequence of their parents. By contrast, I feel utterly sentimental about my parents whose love and support have so informed my life, and who have become, in my adulthood, my friends. [italics hers]

She creates a strong portrait of her intelligent, resourceful father, Fred, who was forced to quit school before entering the ninth…

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