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 grade and work in a machine shop, Harrison Radiator, for forty years, meanwhile moonlighting as a sign painter. Though preferring cities to the country, he resigned himself to living on a farm owned by his wife’s stepparents, even trying to raise pigs at one point. He found outlets for his vitality in playing the piano and church organ, getting a pilot’s license, taking his daughter on adventurous flights, and watching boxing matches with her. Later, in retirement, he would take university classes in stained glass, painting, music, and English and American literature. Restless, opinionated, manly, and deeply ethical, he animates the book, much more so than Joyce’s mother, who we see mainly as a saintly shadow, sewing clothes for her children and preparing meals.
Joyce herself, in the early chapters, is mostly an observer, not entirely equipped with the ability to take action. We catch luminously written glimpses of her as a lonely child who yet revels in her aloneness; explores abandoned houses, whose haunted hints of past occupants excite her proto-novelist speculations; and wanders around late at night, spying on passing cars. During the day she strives to be an A student in a one-room schoolhouse, tries to get religion, and is beset by skepticism about her own smiling, appeasing presentation of self. Her Jewish grandmother introduces her to the local library and encourages her to read. (The tracing of her intellectual development, from Lewis Carroll and Poe to Hemingway, Baldwin, Nietzsche, and beyond, is a refreshing leitmotif, rare in today’s memoirs.) It is only when she comes to know a neighbor girl, Helen, whose alcoholic father abuses his daughters and burns down their house, and whom Joyce torments by nosily questioning her about that tragedy while pretending to offer her friendship, that the narrator becomes a fully complicit, actively engaged participant in the tale.
Cruelty is, her readers know, a major preoccupation of Oates. Here we glimpse something of its derivation. “Young I had learned that there is really no way to placate the cruel except by escaping them…. You learned to rejoice that another, more vulnerable and more accessible victim might appear.” She concludes that “cruelty is a kind of stupidity.” But there is also a good deal of tenderness in the memoir, as exemplified by the insistence that “perhaps there is no higher value, when we think of it, than kindness.” The book is dedicated to her younger brother Fred Jr., but she does not attempt to characterize him, other than as the soul of kindness. She makes clear that her sympathies are with the poor and working-class, inspired by her socialist stepgrandfather, who died of work-related emphysema, and her union machinist father. Her Stakhanovite working habits? “From my parents, a love of being busy, at work.” She writes drolly about her youthful attempts to earn money, selling beauty products door-to-door, making costume jewelry and lawn ornaments, babysitting, hawking Bartlett pears at a roadside stand, and cleaning houses. (She was fired from the last because, her employer told a mutual acquaintance, of “Joyce’s attitude. She looked like she wanted to be somewhere else.”)
As the title indicates, the memoir is preoccupied with loss. “We have forgotten most of our lives. All of our landscapes are soon lost in time” (italics hers). Oates apologizes for no longer remembering so many details. Just as well: her memoir is guided by feeling, and as such succeeds in being consistently moving:
Emotion is a sort of flash photography—if you feel something deeply, you are likely to remember it for a long time. But where emotion is not heightened, as in most of the hours of what we call our “daily” lives, memories fade like Polaroid pictures. The memoirist is one who has impulsively picked up a handful of very hot stones—and has to drop some, in order to keep hold of others.
Three magnificent chapters, or “hot stones,” on the young Joyce are the high points of the memoir. The first tells the story of her best friend Cynthia Heike (an alias), who is well-to-do, bright, tortured, hates her body, and kills herself at eighteen. Every nuance of female friendship, affection, pity, envy, competition, betrayal, failed reassurance, and guilt is anatomized and dramatized here with a remarkable clarity and economy. The second chapter tells the heartbreaking story of her autistic younger sister Lynn, with whom Joyce is unable to establish any kind of connection, even eye contact: “Across this abyss, there is no possibility of contact.” Caring for her sister swallows up her parents’ lives, until she turns violent and attacks her mother, after which she is institutionalized. While still living at home she tears up Joyce’s copy of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, an almost uncanny gesture demarcating the sisters’ differences. Yet Joyce regards her as “a mirror-self, just subtly distorted. Sister-twin, separated by eighteen years” (italics hers). It is this mirroring sibling who contributes, finally, to Oates’s wise perception and humility: “Yet to be proud of one’s intelligence, talent, looks, or achievement has always seemed to me misguided; to betray a misunderstanding of the shake of the dice that grants us, or fails to grant us, our humanity.”
The third chapter recounts the story of Joyce’s graduate studies, at twenty-two, at the University of Wisconsin, a time in which she was overwhelmed with happiness and unhappiness. She fell in love with a fellow student, Raymond Smith, and married him, and at the same time, she became disenchanted with the sterility of the traditionalist English Department, and developed insomnia and tachycardia. After a nightmarish oral examination in which she was harried by the interrogator with petty, nitpicking questions, she was granted a master’s but discouraged from going on to a Ph.D. This humiliating failure actually proved a godsend. Her husband Ray told her: “You didn’t want a Ph.D. anyway. Now you can write.”
Had the memoir ended here, it would have achieved a shapely elegance and finality. But Oates extends it for another seventy-odd pages with Parts II and III, catch-alls for scattered odds and ends about a film adaptation of one of her stories, a Vogue photo shoot, a poem in her mother’s voice, lists, journal entries, and telephone transcriptions, as though she could not bear to let go of the memoir. Much of it consists of further attempts to evoke her parents: “I am determined to memorialize my father, my mother. But—how to begin?” she asks, as though she had not been doing just that for hundreds of pages.
These second thoughts are summed up in a preemptive afterword where her mistrust of the memoir form bursts through. It “has never been my intention to write anything that disturbs, offends, or betrays any person’s privacy,” she announces defensively, and recoils in horror at memoirists who describe the last illnesses of their parents: “Nothing is more offensive than an adult child exposing his or her elderly parents to the appalled fascination of strangers, even with the pretense of openness, honesty.” Earlier, Oates had drawn the curtain on writing about her first husband, Ray, saying she simply couldn’t dishonor their intimacy. Fair enough. She has been more than generous in revealing her own vulnerabilities, and every memoirist has the right to select what to disclose or not, and to avoid or smooth over subjects in order to protect others.
But her ambivalence about memoirs goes deeper: the form, she writes, distorts through retrospective hindsight, imposing a spurious narrative wholeness on life’s fugitive fragments. “The most reliable memoirs,” she writes,
are those comprised of journal or diary entries, or letters, that attest to the immediacy of experience before it becomes subject to the vicissitudes of memory. As soon as you shift from the tense I am to I was, still more to I had been you are entering the realm of “creative recollection.” My first memoir A Widow’s Story (2011) was composed primarily of journal entries recording approximately four months following the hospital admission and the death of my husband Raymond Smith in February 2008.
Whether she likes it or not, A Lost Landscape is a much better book than A Widow’s Story, in part because of that very distance, which allowed her to gain perspective on experience and to write sentences that are more graceful and stunning than those recorded hastily in a diary under the shock of grief.
Oates states that she has previously resisted the memoir form “because I have never felt that my life could be nearly as interesting as what my imagination could make of another’s life….” Early on, she found herself to be “under the spell of the Other, mesmerized by the prospect of mysterious lives that may surround me….” The irony is that Oates has in fact written a memoir that successfully renders “Joyce” as a vivid, extremely interesting, touching, likable character, and that, thanks to its brilliant chapters, deserves to take its place in the canon of American autobiographical writing.
The memoir ends with the assertion that “the most crucial quality of personality is sympathy.” But sympathy does not guarantee access to a fictional character’s interior life, which is one of the drawbacks of her novel The Sacrifice. This book is based rather closely on the Tawana Brawley case in 1987 and 1988, in which an African-American fifteen-year-old was discovered in a trash bag, her body covered with feces and defaced by racial slurs. The girl claimed she had been raped by six men, including police officers, though many holes were found in her story by the press as well as the authorities, and a grand jury concluded that the story was concocted in order to evade punishment from a violent stepfather. At the time the incident was used by some African-American activists, led by Reverend Al Sharpton, to organize political protests.
In the present climate of concern for black victims at the hands of the police, Oates is brave in taking on this subject, and she has every right to inhabit African-American characters, as she has done frequently in the past. Her use of black English dialect in stream-of-consciousness or dialogue need not be offensive in itself. The problem is that too much energy has gone into mimicking colloquial speech patterns and not enough into exploring the inner lives of the characters. Oates’s tendency here is to concentrate on their dread, fear, and rage, and they come off as generic. We never learn about the girl or her mother as complex individuals, with specific daily lives and idiosyncrasies. Rather generalized too, are the descriptions of the ghetto environment, bleak lists of squalor and deprivation.
Two chapters show the mental disintegration of both a rookie cop who shoots himself after a brief involvement in the case and an angry African-American man who guns down several policemen before dying in a hail of bullets. Both these interior monologues of mounting confusion and despair are strongly written, but I’m not sure to what end, since we never see either character except in his moment of self-destruction.
The novel came alive, for me, with the introduction of a charismatic, opportunistic, nattily dressed preacher, Marus Mudrick, who is clearly modeled on Al Sharpton. Oates views Mudrick entirely from the outside, in a sardonically satiric spirit, but he has more vitality than the characters with whom she attempts to sympathize. In general the more educated supporting characters (a policewoman, a teacher, various attorneys) are more credible than her semiliterate African-Americans. It may be that Oates overvalues her ability to empathize with others, to shape-shift into everyone and everything (even an ill-advised appearance as a chicken in the memoir), while undervaluing her talent for writing about herself.
The Sacrifice is an attempt to base a work of fiction on a sensational tabloid story by following the process of the crime and its polarizing consequences in various parts of society. As such, it is reminiscent of Richard Price’s fictional method in Freedomland and Lush Life, though it lacks that writer’s street smarts or his energy. The result is a patient, powerful rendering, highly readable and serious, yet ultimately strained and claustrophobic. The hopeful discovery Oates makes in her memoir about her own humbling graduate school experience—“We have the power to redefine ourselves, to heal our wounds”—is denied to the characters in The Sacrifice.
In Jack of Spades, her third publication of 2015, which is a psychological thriller, the narrator and main character, Andrew J. Rush, is a very successful mystery-suspense writer who has been called “the gentleman’s Stephen King.” With the profits from his sales of millions of books he supports a family in high style and gives money to local causes. But he also writes “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific” books under the pen name Jack of Spades; and gradually, in Jekyll and Hyde fashion, this side of him takes over the civic-minded, proper Rush. He starts plotting perfect crimes and actually killing those in his way.
Oates hasn’t the slightest sympathy with this psychotic murderer and she doesn’t go very far beneath the surface, as Jim Thompson for example did in his book The Killer Inside Me (1952). The book is written more in the breathlessly gothic style of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” or H.P. Lovecraft’s tales. The author underlines her narrator’s unreliability by punctuating his speech with exclamation marks. Another tipoff that he is self-deluded is his insistence over and over that “I am a good person! I am a person who loves his family, and I am a citizen who cares about his community.” Would a professional mystery writer be so little aware of human flaws and moral ambiguities as to assert his own impeccable virtue?
Then again, the book is not meant to be realistic. Oates has fun with the world of mass-market publishing and the competitive envy of best-selling writers. Along the way she exposes Rush’s loathsome condescension toward his wife, whose superior literary gifts he has exploited. He is not only a killer but a male chauvinist. His feminist English-major daughter unearths his beastliness through textual analysis of her father’s books. We also learn that his lethal past extended back to boyhood. The hero/villain’s panic, dread, and anarchic impulses intensify, until he gets his due. “To destroy evil we must destroy the being which evil inhabits, even if it is ourselves,” he solemnly intones.
That a writer of Oates’s stature and high ability should occupy herself with this nonsense suggests an imagination so fluent that no idea seems too far-fetched. In some ways, Oates may be deliberately parodying herself through the character of Rush, who declares: “For the simple truth is that I love to write, and am restless when I am not able to work at my desk at least ten hours a day.”
In the vast, welcoming, permissive stretches of Oatesland, among its peaks and valleys of quality, Jack of Spades will find its humble place. Those who wish to explore that fascinating kingdom would do better to begin with her superlative memoir, The Lost Landscape.