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It’s a common trope in Young Adult novels to feature a teenage protagonist in a dystopian future who is penalized for fighting against an oppressive system. That’s exactly the story Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new novel HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL. However, this is not a Young Adult novel. Oates is certainly familiar with the form and nature of YA fiction having written several books in this genre. It’d be natural to assume that she’s utilizing her expertise in this form and is also making a departure from her typically realistic fiction to branch into feminist dystopian fiction. There is a cycle of novels in this form particularly prevalent in literature today (as described by Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times article ‘How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety’ in which she cites Oates’s novel.) But the journey and outcome of Oates’s highly unusual new novel is much more startling and darkly subversive than any tale that could be categorized as Young Adult. Instead, HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL engages with ideas of behavioural psychology and Cold War politics to form an utterly unique commentary on society today. It also incorporates many autobiographical elements which surprisingly might make it one of Oates’s most personal and reflective novels yet.

The year is NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States. To put this in perspective, this novel actually takes place only a few years in the future. History proceeding the 9/11 attacks has been erased and dates in the North American States (NAS) begin from this point. In this newly reconstituted country which has absorbed the territories of Mexico and Canada, free speech and private thoughts are tightly controlled by the government. People are segmented into official racial categories determined by skin colour. Adriane Strohl is a curious and intelligent high school student who has been recognized as the class valedictorian and she’s invited to give a speech to the student body. She takes this opportunity to ask general questions which the government doesn’t like to be asked. As a consequence she’s punished by being designated an EI (Exiled Individual) and transported back through time to Zone 9. Here it is the year 1959 and she’s required to attend a university in Wisconsin “to train yourself in a socially useful profession.” She is equipped only with a new name (Mary Ellen Enright) and a list of instructions which prohibit her from leaving the area, developing intimate relationships or speaking about the future. Adriane knows that any deviation will result in her being “Deleted” – an example of what being deleted entails is vividly and terrifyingly portrayed in an opening section. From this point, she sets out to navigate this tricky and unfamiliar landscape of the past.

According to Greg Johnson’s biography of Oates, INVISIBLE WRITER, the author was also a valedictorian given the dubious honour of making a speech to the student body. Like Adriane, Oates was terrified about making this speech. It’s interesting how Oates’ own apparent fears and preoccupations manifest throughout the entire novel. In effect, Adriane is transported back in time to live through Joyce Carol Oates’ own university years in a region analogous to Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the author earned her graduate and post-graduate degrees. Like Oates, Adriane/Mary Ellen finds it necessary to earn her keep while she’s a student by working gruelling hours in a part time job in a library for a pitiful amount of money. Some of Oates’s fiction, most notably MARYA: A LIFE and I’LL TAKE YOU THERE, revolve around periods of adolescent experience which are very similar to Oates’ own. HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL is a novel that seems to borrow more freely from her autobiographical experience. As such, I believe the author uses her own past as a metafictional device to creatively explore issues concerning memory, guilt, free will, psychology and history.

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At university Adriane is plagued by feelings of loneliness and she becomes fixated with an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. Not only does she feel a romantic desire towards him, but he is also revealed to be an Exiled Individual from the future serving out a punishment. At one point, Wolfman calls into question the validity of their surroundings: “’Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct.” This introduces dilemmas poised somewhere between the metaphysical issues raised in the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Are these characters only imagining that they’re from the future? If they’ve been exiled to the past are they really being monitored? Is their “rehabilitation” really a part of a larger design? Adding to these sinister questions are those raised by Adriane’s classes on B.F. Skinner and his morally dubious behaviouralist experiments. The novel begins with the epigram from Skinner “A self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses.” Are Adriane’s choices and decisions ultimately the result of her environment and the government she lives under? How much agency does she have to enact change in her surroundings and determine her own future? These questions pile on top of each other over the course of the story and build into a fever of paranoia and uncertainty so that the novel’s conclusion (which would be considered positive in any other circumstance) feels incredibly sinister and horrific.

The many issues this novel raises over the course of the story powerfully coalesce to reflect anxieties and fears about the current political climate in America today. It also allows Oates opportunities for more playful commentary about the direction our culture is taking. In NAS-23 there are no democrats or republicans; there is just the Patriot Party. Voting is performed by placing a smiling emoji next to the candidate of choice. But Oates also pokes fun of some antiquated aspects of culture from the 50s and 60s. Adriane observes how agonizing it is wearing hair curlers to bed. Paper feels horribly inadequate to her as a reading device. Adriane’s unique point of view also casts new light on the Red Scare and threat of nuclear war which coloured this time period. By considering a period of personal and political upheaval in US history through this form of speculative fiction, Oates prompts us to question what are the real threats to the country as well as deeper anxieties about how our society is evolving. At one point Adriane/Mary Ellen states “time turns back upon itself. You believe that you are making progress, but it is an illusion. Yet, this is progress of a kind.” Given our proximity in time to NAS-23, Oates appears to be postulating how we need to step back before leaping forward.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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For all the daring stylistic variations and rich diversity of subject matter found in Beautiful Days, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection of short stories, there is a common theme throughout of disruptively close encounters with the “other.” At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, Oates gave a talk titled ‘Close Encounters with the Other’ and in this session she describes how “There comes a time in our lives when we realize that other people are not projections of ourselves - that we can’t really identify with them. We might sympathize or empathize with them, but we can’t really know them fully. They are other and they are opaque.” So in these stories characters strive for connections which often tragically break down. These encounters document the awkward or sometimes violent clashes that occur between individuals who are so dissimilar there is an unbreachable rupture in understanding. The factors that divide these characters include issues such as romantic intention, gender, age, race, class, education and nationality. Oates creates a wide array of situations and richly complex characters to show the intense drama that arises from clashes surrounding these subjects.

Some stories take fascinatingly different angles on the question of trust and the durability of love within romantic affairs or long-term marriages. In ‘Fleuve Bleu’ two married individuals initiate an affair with a declaration that they will maintain complete honesty. Yet there are fundamental issues left unsaid which motivate one individual to abruptly bring their affair to a halt. Here descriptions of the environment strikingly emote the passion of their connection and erotic encounters. A couple at cross-purposes is also portrayed in 'Big Burnt' where a weekend tryst to an island is initiated because Lisbeth wants to make Mikael love her, but Mikael wants a woman to witness his suicide. Whereas in 'The Bereaved' it feels as if the female protagonist was taken on as a wife only to care for the husband’s motherless child. The child’s early death precipitates a feeling of her role being taken away as well as deep feelings of guilt which manifest in a fascinatingly dramatic way while the couple embark on an ecological cruise. The stories suggest that no matter the passion or fervour of a couple’s connection there is an element of unknowability about one’s partner which makes itself known in the course of time.

Other stories describe class and racial conflicts between teachers and pupils. In 'Except You Bless Me' a Detroit English teacher named Helen earnestly tries to tutor her pupil Larissa despite strongly suspecting this student is leaving her aggressively racist messages. This is an interesting variation from a section of Oates's novel Marya where the protagonist encounters slyly aggressive behaviour from black janitor Sylvester at the school where she teaches. Both are expressions of the quandary a white individual might have faced at this time of Detroit history when racial tensions ran high. Helen makes little progress in her tutoring and then, many years later, finds herself in a vulnerable position with a woman she imagines to be Larissa as an adult. Like in 'The Bereaved', the protagonist is somewhat aware of her own prejudices, but is nevertheless drawn into paranoid fantasies. However, the wife of 'The Bereaved' is prejudiced not about race, but the obesity and perceived stupidity of a family aboard the cruise ship. Fascinatingly, she thinks of this family as like people who might be photographed by Diane Arbus in contrast to other groups on the ship who are like “Norman Rockwell families”. The central characters in these stories turn certain people they encounter into antagonists because there is an “otherness” about them which they can’t overcome.

Intergenerational conflicts which are described in some other stories are centred around a parent/child relationship. In 'Owl Eyes' teenager Jerald appears to have some form of autism where he has very advanced abilities in mathematics and experiences feelings of panic when there are deviations from his fixed routines. He regularly travels to a university campus to attend a calculus class, but when a man approaches him claiming to be his estranged father Jerald can’t reconcile how this man might fit into the narrative created by his single mother. Jerald is reluctant to engage with memory because, unlike math, it is uncertain and has an inherent malleability: “Memories return in waves, overwhelming. You can drown in memories.” Memory is distorted in the tremendously ambitious story 'Fractal' which is also about a mother and her son. At the beginning of this story the characters are only referred to as “the mother” and “the child” as if these identity roles supersede any individuality that would grant them names. “The mother” indulges her child’s specialist interest by taking him to a (fictional) Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine. As the pair explore the museums exhibits, multiple versions of their reality are gradually introduced until “the mother” is confronted with a true past that she’s wholly denied.

A very different kind of teacher/pupil relationship is depicted in 'The Quiet Car' where an arrogant male teacher/writer reflects on his declining literary fame and an adoring female student who he viewed in a disparaging way. When he bumps into this student again many years later he’s confronted by how his conception of himself has been overly inflated. Oates has recently shown a particular knack for excoriating the pompous egos of celebrated male authors/artists in her fiction. Most notably this can be seen in her collection Wild Nights! and her controversial depiction of Robert Frost in the short story ‘Lovely, Dark Deep’. However, Oates constructs a more playful tribute to a particular author’s ambition and his lasting impact in her story 'Donald Barthelme Saved From Oblivion'. Here she memorably describes the writing process as like walking over and over across a high wire and makes acute observations about the meaning and endurance of art.

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The vivid and intense story 'Les Beaux Jours' contains a much sharper critique of the problematic nature of artist Balthus’s famous painting. Here the reader inhabits the troubled psyche of the girl depicted in this artwork who is like an enslaved fairy tale heroine while simultaneously existing as a girl from a broken affluent NYC home. As with many stories in the second section of this collection, this story slides into the surreal as does the brief and powerfully haunting story ‘The Memorial Field at Hazard, Minnesota’. Here the author’s condemnation for the tyrannical nature of ego-driven politicians sees a former president forcibly condemned to the hellish task of digging up graves of those who were victims of his poor policies and warmongering.

Oates creatively engages with the politics of immigration in what is probably the most radical story in this collection 'Undocumented Alien'. Here a Nigerian-born young man J.S. Maada enters into a secret governmental psychological experiment rather than face deportation. A chip planted in his brain causes a “radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition” and results in him believing that he’s an agent from planet Jupiter's moon Ganymede. This leads to paranoid fantasies and a horrific confrontation with the white lady who employs him as a gardener. It’s tremendously poignant that the way J.S. Maada is manipulated, persecuted and discarded is indicative of how an intolerant section of white America reacts to “otherness.”

This collection of stories seems to possess an urgency and anger influenced by current American politics. It never ceases to amaze me how Oates continually pushes boundaries and orchestrates a dialogue around some of the most pressing matters in society today. In addition to how these stories address many dramatic instances of confrontations with the “other”, they also possess an impressive diversity in their style and form. The bold variety of narratives in this collection continuously surprise and delight. Much of the fiction in Beautiful Days is longer than a typical short story. With several stories tipping into lengths considered to be a novella, it feels that many could easily expand out into novels. Given that Oates’s forthcoming novel (currently titled) My Life as a Rat is based off her short story ‘Curly Red’, it will be interesting to see if the author chooses to build upon any of the short fiction in Beautiful Days. However, the stories in this collection stand firmly on their own with all their startling psychological insight and bracing depictions of tragic conflict. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Oates’s writing has always surveyed the social landscape of American culture, but recently her novels have become more sharply defined by the most significant political debates in the country. These include her novel The Falls which fictionalizes the infamous Love Canal environmental tragedy, My Sister, My Love which fictionalizes the media sensation of JonBenet Ramsey’s story, Carthage which explores the overcrowded penitentiary system and The Sacrifice which fictionalizes the case of Tawana Brawley who was allegedly the victim of racist police brutality. These dramatic stories consider how class, politics, religion, law and the media shape the pressing ideological conflicts within American society. A Book of American Martyrs directly addresses the highly controversial subject of abortion. It begins with the execution of abortion doctor Gus Voorhees and his volunteer driver by zealous pro-life protestor Luther Dunphy who is affiliated with the Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization. The novel recounts this incident from a variety of perspectives, the lives of the victims and the shooter as well as the way it affects their families in the decades that follow. In doing so, Oates artfully presents a nuanced account of the tragic consequences of bad logic and extreme opinions.

The title is a play on the 16th century text Book of Martyrs by John Foxe which was an influential polemic recounting the sufferings of Protestants under the Catholic Church in England and Scotland. Oates similarly shows subjective points of view on the sacrifices and perceived injustices suffered by the protagonists by presenting italicized first-person accounts from a variety of peripheral characters. These testimonies build to a chorus of opinions surrounding the case and transform mere individuals who died because of their beliefs into icons of a particular cause. Despite repeated threats made against of his life, Gus Voorhees bravely persevered working in women's clinics in areas of the country that actively protested against abortion. Luther Dunphy realised he was giving up his life by executing the abortion doctor he considered a murderer so that “in some quarters, among avid Christians, Dunphy was revered as a kind of hero, a ‘soldier of Jesus’ and a ‘martyr.’” In this way, subsequent to their fates, both men transformed from mortals to symbols within the public consciousness.

In the first half of the novel Oates shows how both these men are more complicated than the ideas that they come to embody. Luther and his wife Edna Mae’s youngest daughter Daphne is born with a debilitating mental handicap. She dies in a car crash which may or may not have been an accident; the question which Luther can’t even seem to ask himself is whether it would have been better to abort this daughter before her birth if they were aware of her severe handicap. Rather than pursue the intricacies of his problems he becomes more pious and secretly satisfies his sexual cravings in clandestine meetings with women in motels. Here is the grating hypocrisy of the zealous: Luther condemns women who get abortions while not taking responsibility for having sex with anonymous women. It reveals an innate sexism within arguments about abortion. Alternatively, Gus seeks to assist women from Christian backgrounds that are fervently opposed to abortion. But, in one case, he finds himself publicly accused of coercing a woman to abort her baby after she begged him for assistance. The question of choice is considered from many different angles through the various strands of both men’s lives.

The novel also shows other forms of martyrdom in figures such as Voorhees' driver Timothy who is also shot down. Later in the novel his daughter angrily declares “It was VOORHEES that was the martyr. On the anti-abortion websites it was stated that Timothy Barron’s death was COLLATERAL DAMAGE and in a war COLLATERAL DAMAGE is to be regretted but not to be avoided.” Although Timothy was merely a bystander in this conflict and his loss interjects another level of moral complexity, ironically his death fades more quickly in the minds of the public. In a sense, the widows of both Gus and Luther sacrifice themselves to the memories of their husbands. Edna Mae becomes addicted to pain killers and strengthens her resolve as a pro-life Christian participating in a macabre spectacle where aborted fetuses are recovered from abortion clinics and buried. Conversely, Gus's widow Jenna withdraws entirely from her children to devote herself to legal work even at the expense of her wellbeing: “the more ravaged Jenna appeared, the more of a martyr.” In both cases the family unit is obliterated as a result of grief and the continuing ideological battle.

The eldest daughters of both families inherit the fallout from the conflict their parents were embroiled in. The second half of the novel is primarily concerned with following their journeys as young adults. Luther’s daughter Dawn is sympathetically portrayed as a victim of physical and sexual assault at her school. Her sturdy physique and endurance for pain prompt her to fight back and transform herself into a promising welterweight boxer with the name D.D. Dunphy Hammer of Jesus. As a deeply solitary individual, she persists in her faith despite being rejected by Edna Mae. Some of the most tender and heartfelt scenes in the novel are when Dawn shyly tries to connect with women she admires, possibly out of a latent homosexuality. Gus’s daughter Naomi enjoys the privilege of education and more financial security, but her upbringing is no more emotionally secure than Dawn’s. She scrambles to create a personal archive memorializing Gus’s life and only achieves a meaningful family connection in her estranged grandmother Madelena Kein, a professor of philosophy, and a complex challenging figure Karl Kinch. It’s possible for the reader to reconsider the entire narrative as being the product of Naomi’s research after we learn that she aspires to become a documentary filmmaker.

Despite the way individuals flounder and are felled amidst the deeply divisive ideological battle at the centre of this novel, the enduring impression of this finely detailed story is hopeful. The new generation may have been wronged and abandoned by the proceeding one, but these brave daughters hunger for insight and connections across the divide nonetheless. They find it difficult to work through the prejudice they’ve inherited and their challenging development is laced with grief so that even the sound of a walking stick on a hike can conjure the pain of everything that was lost with their fathers. However, they possess an innate curiosity and resilience which Oates is particularly skilful at portraying in young female characters. A Book of American Martyrs doesn’t seek to answer the question of how extremism can be overcome, but memorialize how individuals can evolve to see past the views of their limited perspective to that of another. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Joyce Carol Oates is such a prolific writer that it may surprise some of her readers to discover that she is also a committed and voracious reader. It’s easy to imagine the perennial question which Oates is asked “How do you write so much?” being quickly followed by “How do you read so much?” Soul at the White Heat is a sustained and fascinating collection of nonfiction chronicling not only her reflections as a writer, but her engagement with a wide range of books by authors —some of whom are “classics” and others “contemporaries.” Every analysis or review Oates gives of a single book is scattered with mentions of that author’s other publications as well as a wide variety of other writers and books which provide enlightening points of reference. The collection is filled primarily with book reviews, so the subtitle “Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life” clues the reader into how the compulsion to write is inextricably linked to the desire to read widely and rigorously. Because this collection comes from a writer of such productivity and stature, it can be read in two ways. The first is as an astute survey of writing from some of the greatest past and present practitioners of the craft. The second is as a supplement to Oates’s own fiction, providing fascinating insights into how her perspective on other writing might relate to her past publications. However, underlying this entire anthology is the question of why writers feel inspired to write and what compels us to keep reading.

For some writers, Oates gives an informative overview of that author’s complete output. There is the “weird” writing of H.P. Lovecraft or the “bold and intriguing” detective fiction of Derek Raymond both of which lead Oates to make intriguing observations about the nature of genre. Another section gives a broad look at the life and work of famously prolific author Georges Simenon with a special consideration for the memoirist nature of one of his pivotal novels. In one of the most personal pieces Oates recounts a visit and interview she conducted with Doris Lessing in 1972 where she considers Lessing’s psychologically realist fiction alongside her audacious science fiction. Oates nobly raises the stature of some lesser known writers such as Lucia Berlin by drawing comparisons between her “zestfully written, seemingly artless” short stories and the firmly established writing of Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and Raymond Carver.

Oates has taught literature and writing for most of her life and in several pieces it’s possible to gauge her academic nature to inspire and provoke more nuanced thinking. Such is the case in one of the opening essays where she meticulously dissects the “anatomy of a story.” In “Two American Prose Masters” she makes a sharply analytical critique of how tense is used in a short story by John Updike and contrasts this with a heartrending story by Ralph Ellison. At other times she questions how style and form are related to subject matter. For instance, when considering Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest she asks if a postmodernist use of irony excludes emotion no matter how devastating or “mighty” the subject matter. In considering the “detached and ironic tone” of much of Margaret Drabble’s fiction she prompts the reader to ask how this reflects contemporary English culture and feminism. As much as making judgements throughout these numerous essays and reviews, Oates draws readers to more attentively question how they read fiction.

As a critic, Oates shows a great deal of empathy towards the artfulness employed by the vast array of writers she discusses in this book. If negative points are made they are often balanced by something positive. However, she certainly doesn't shy away from pointing out severe failings in either authors or their books. Such is the case with H.P. Lovecraft who for all the wonder of his gothic imagination was “an antiSemite . . . racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot” and she observes how “For all his intelligence and aesthetic theorizing, Lovecraft was, like Poe, a remarkably uneven writer.” When reviewing the novel The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler and Tyler's parochial portrait of the diverse city of Baltimore she surmises that “the fiction is determinedly old-fashioned, 'traditional' and conservative; it takes no risks, and confirms the wisdom of risklessness.” In the case of Karen Joy Fowler whose novel We Are Completely Beside Ourselves Oates admires as “boldly exploratory” she nonetheless considers it a misjudgement to limit the novel's point of view to the first person. She circumvents even mentioning Fowler's novel for the first five pages of the review by embarking on a fascinating consideration of Darwin and animal rights.

Oates doesn’t strictly limit herself to the realm of fiction in her criticism. She also reviews nonfiction and autobiography. These range from what might be the new definitive biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin to Margaret Atwood’s overview of science fiction In Other Worlds (where Oates cites the notable absence of Doris Lessing) to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her attempted suicide. When considering an “unauthorized” biography of Joan Didion titled The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty, Oates considers the evolution of Didion’s writing and how in her journalism she finds “a perfect conjunction of reportorial and memoirist urges.” Sometimes Oates asks how real-life relationships between writers and artists influence their output. When surveying the published letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz she wonders if it weren’t for Stieglitz’s influence whether O’Keeffe would still have achieved her deserved legacy as an American icon of the art world. There is also an essay which contemplates the difficult later years of Mike Tyson in the book Undisputed Truth as well as a review of the film The Fighter where Oates draws upon her considerable knowledge of boxing to critique the way the film misses out on the athletic art form of the sport. It’s easy to see why Oates was motivated to write about these last two examples because of the sustained interest in the sport she’s shown throughout her career in both her fiction such as her most recent novel A Book of American Martyrs and her slim nonfiction book On Boxing.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

There are many pieces in Soul at the White Heat which will intrigue the avid reader of Oates’s oeuvre for how the subjects and writing styles she discusses relate to her own work. For example, Oates is highly sympathetic with Derek Raymond’s “existential pilgrim as detective, the object of his inquiry nothing less than the meaning of life itself.” This is both a mode of writing and character type she also used in her exemplary post-modernist detective novel Mysteries of Winterthurn. There is also a very considered review of Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Kind Words Saloon where he realistically renders the now mythic figures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday just as Oates sought to reimagine the girl behind the legend of Marilyn Monroe in her monumental novel Blonde. Oates admires the different slant on Dickinson’s life Jerome Charyn takes in his novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson which is interesting to consider alongside Oates’s extremely imaginative short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” where she gives the classic American poet a second life as a computerized mannequin. When writing about Lorrie Moore's distinctive short stories Oates pays particular attention to two stories which rewrite particular tales by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James (writers whose stories Oates has also previously created her own versions of). Despite there being many parallels in themes between her own work and these other writers, Oates tactfully never references her own fiction.

Soul at the White Heat opens with four somewhat candid pieces about the writing process and her own “credo” as an artist. It's possible to see how she holds to her “several overlapping ideals” when looking back at both her fiction and the way she critiques other writer's books. In Oates's writing room she reflects how her younger self would feel “stunned” that she would produce so many books when “each hour's work feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.” From the confined space of the study this anthology ends by moving out into “real life” with a touching, vividly detailed essay about a visit Oates undertook to San Quentin prison where she admits her idealistic urge “To learn more about the world. To be less sheltered. To be less naïve. To know.” Although this is not mentioned in the piece, Oates was subsequently inspired to help bring the stories of prisoners to the public consciousness by editing the extremely engaging anthology Prison Noir. For an author who writes so infrequently about her own life (recent memoirs A Widow’s Story and The Lost Landscape being notable exceptions) it’s refreshing to meet Oates’s voice when unmediated by the guise of fiction. Here is someone so “inspired” and “obsessed” with the boundless excitement and vertiginous joy to be found in great literature that she is motivated to devote so much time to the activity of reading when she’s not writing her own fiction. Perhaps this is the real answer to that oft-asked question of how Oates has produced over one hundred books of fiction. It’s not about how it’s done; it’s about why she does it.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Strong love stories drive many of the greatest novels of all time, but the love story in The Man Without a Shadow is remarkably unusual and haunting. From this tale Joyce Carol Oates raises probing questions about the nature of love and the phenomenon of consciousness. Elihu Hoops - a charismatic man from a prominent wealthy family and ardent civil rights activist - experiences an acute inflammation of the brain in 1964 which causes him to lose all short-term memory. He is incapable of remembering anything new for more than seventy seconds. His condition can never be cured because of irreparable damage to the hippocampus area of his brain which is responsible for the formation of new memories. In the proceeding decades he’s regularly taken to a university’s research facility or “Memory Lab” where groups of neuroscientists engage him with tests to better understand the biological connection between the brain and memory. Even though this is for the betterment of society and human knowledge, the question lingers if Elihu is being exploited. One of the scientists Margot Sharpe builds an entire career out of working closely with the amnesiac. The connection she forms with him over a lifetime turns into a strikingly original romance.

Read my full review on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=jcostudies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Joyce Carol Oates has written an extraordinary number of exceptional novels, short stories, poems and plays. When she has written in her own unmediated voice it has usually been in the form of book reviews, essays, or extended non-fiction on subjects such as boxing or artists. Rarely does she write directly about her own personal life or development as a writer, with the notable exception of her memoir A Widow's Story (2011) about the death of her husband Raymond Smith, told mostly in journal form. So it’s surprising and exciting that Oates has assembled various pieces of autobiographical writing to form this memoir about her childhood, The Lost Landscape.

The book is organized in roughly chronological order from Oates’s earliest youth to the death of her parents in their old age. In one of the earliest sections Oates makes the stylistically-radical choice of narrating from the perspective of her pet “Happy Chicken.” This is a highly playful and entertaining way of approaching the largely impressionistic memories she has of her earliest youth. However, this chapter also hints at the formation of some of Oates’s most primal beliefs about the way gender roles and social relationships are played out in this tender portrait of family life. As with much of Oates’s great literature, some of the most ardent power struggles in society are played out in micro form—in this case through the example of rural farming life.

Oates recollects powerful episodes about a neighboring family called the Judds. Unlike the relatively happy family unit found in Oates’s household, the Judds were hampered by issues of alcoholism, spousal abuse, and severe poverty. Of course, at the time, these issues were not labelled as such. An attentive reader will see in this family and the Judd’s daughter who was Oates’s friend characteristics and conflicts found in much of the author’s fiction. Oates points out that “they tell us everything about ourselves and even the telling, the exposure, is a kind of radical cutting, an inscription in the flesh.” The struggles and hardships of this specific family stand for something universal about the human condition. By witnessing and empathizing with such struggle we are changed and indelibly marked.

There is a confessional aspect to some chapters which concern enduring personal mysteries or things not often talked about among Oates’s family. This includes an account of a college friend who was plagued by destructive insecurities and eventually committed suicide. The lingering pain is felt in Oates's emphatic connection to her lost friend: “You are as much myself as another. You are myself.” The sense of being a twin or the lucky half of a single being is felt even more intensely in the heartbreaking chapter about Oates’s much younger and severely-autistic sister Lynn. This doubling is even more evident because the sisters possess such physical similarities and were born on the same day of the year. Oates reflects how her sister is “A mirror-self, just subtly distorted. Sistertwin, separated by eighteen years.” One could make connections between these autobiographical passages and Oates’s frequent preoccupation with twins in her writing. More broadly, these feelings of empathy with those who are so similar to the author herself but who experienced a different fate reinforce Oates’s message throughout her writing that our existence is so often determined by mere chance.

Some of the most endearing passages in this memoir are about Oates’s burgeoning love of books. One chapter memorializes her experience of first being given an illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by her grandmother, and in another chapter she recalls the excitement of receiving her first library card. Any lover of reading will connect to Oates’s impassioned discovery of literature. Even when she tried to decipher books beyond her understanding she states: “Stubbornly I read even when I had only a vague idea of what I was reading.” Part of the process of learning is humbling yourself before what you read, to argue with it and puzzle over the possible meanings. It’s reassuring to discover that like all students Oates struggled with some literature, but she also found it exhilarating as she eloquently describes here: “It was thrilling to undertake such bouts of reading, as in a plunge into unfathomable depths of the ocean; it was thrilling and also terrifying, for at such depths one could not easily breathe, and the more desperate one was to concentrate one’s thoughts, the more likely one’s thoughts were to break and scatter like panicked birds from a tree.” This intense engagement with literature sympathetically demonstrates why endeavouring to understand the world through books can be frustrating but can feel like the only thing an intellectually engaged person can do.

Oates raises questions about the nature of memory and the somewhat faulty medium of memoir writing to adequately represent the past. She states: “the effort of writing a memoir is so fraught with peril, and even its small successes ringed by melancholy. The fact is—We have forgotten most of our lives. All of our landscapes are soon lost in time.” Therefore, rather than constructed as a straightforward narrative, the memoir is based around Oates’s recollections of members of her family, particular incidents, or significant objects such as photographs or letters which provide a touchstone to the past. One of the most intriguing and significant chapters, “Headlights: The First Death,” recounts a childhood obsession with sneaking out of her house in the middle of the night to sit by a roadside watching the lights of passing cars. In this section she gives a powerful meditation on the state of being alone and an observer of the world with all its stories and mysteries: “I love it that our lives are not so crudely determined as some might wish them to be, but that we appear, and reappear, and again reappear, as unpredictably to ourselves as to those who would wish to oppress us.” This is a tremendously empowering statement about the strength we can find in such solitude regardless of how others may perceive us.

The Lost Landscape gives a powerful depiction of the author’s early life, yet it is also a meditation on the process of writing itself and hints at reasons for Oates’s ardent engagement with writing as a form of memorializing the past. She notes the quixotic nature of her drive to create stories: “It may be that the writer/artist is stimulated by childhood mysteries or that it is the childhood mysteries that stimulate the writer/artist. Sometimes in my writing, when I am most absorbed and fascinated, to the point of anxiety, I find myself imagining that what I am inventing is in some way ‘real’; if I can solve the mystery of the fiction, I will have solved a mystery of my life. That the mystery is never solved would seem to be the reason for the writer’s continuous effort to solve it—each story, each poem, each novel is a restatement of the quest to penetrate the mystery, tirelessly restated. The writer is the decipherer of clues—if by ‘clues’ is meant a broken and discontinuous subterranean narrative.” There’s no doubt that these episodes from Oates’s early life influenced her writing. In fact, there are direct references to some of her greatest novels such as them, I’ll Take You There, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and the author’s most well-known short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Yet, more than any direct relation these experiences may bear on her writing, the author’s upbringing formed in her mind philosophical riddles about the nature of life. Oates’s ceaseless dedication to writing and her ever-evolving forms of storytelling demonstrate her continuous quest to probe and give a new slant to these unsolvable mysteries about identity and the past.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol2/iss1/7/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson