OCTOBER 7, 2015
ONCE AGAIN Joyce Carol Oates shows her versatility: her new memoir is the polar opposite in tone and strategy of her previous one, A Widow’s Story (2011), which chronicles the first months of her grieving after the death of her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith. A Widow’s Story relies on journal entries documenting the force and range of her overpowering emotions, written in the heat of the moment. The Lost Landscape, in contrast, offers emotion tempered by reason; it is measured, thoughtful, analytical, exploratory. It has a singular and discrete goal — to reveal those particular experiences Oates lived and witnessed from early childhood to young womanhood that shaped the writer she would become. It fulfills that goal with admirable clarity and insight, in prose that invites absorption and trust.
In tracing her growth into a writer she offers the best answer I’ve seen to readers’ perennial question to writers: but is it true?
A writer’s work is a codified transcript of the writer’s life. The (public) work is a record of the (private) life. As years pass, however, and the private/secret life is forgotten except in outline, even the key to the code is haphazardly recalled, for past secrets are never so tantalizingly secret as those of the present. But the work remains, the book remains, as testimony of a kind.
Indeed, ars longa, vita brevis. But for Oates the key point here is “code.” She’s too sophisticated to suggest that every novel is a lightly altered autobiographical record. It is rather a record of the pathways set up in the author’s sensibility by unforgettable events, events that undergo transformation into — one hopes — unforgettable fiction.
For this and other reasons, The Lost Landscape is far from your commonplace memoir. First of all, it’s not a straightforward narrative but is made up of some 20 essays written at different times in Oates’s life and published in various places, from The New Yorker to smaller literary magazines like Antaeus and Southwest Review. Very often collections of that sort are published for commercial reasons, to revive or promote a sagging reputation, and read like patchworks. Nothing of the kind here. Oates’s reputation as a prolific writer of fiction and criticism is hardly in need of bolstering. The essays in The Lost Landscape, most of them revised for this volume, fit together with grace and balance and coalesce into a portrait of Oates as artist in the making.
The pieces are arranged chronologically, from the five-year-old child who grieves over the loss of a pet chicken to the newly married young woman who receives her master’s degree in literature from the University of Wisconsin but is rejected from further study for a PhD. It may seem ludicrous now to think of Oates considered unworthy of serious study of English literature, but as her husband remarks wryly, “Now you can write.” (All’s well that ends well: in 1985 she was invited back to Madison to receive an honorary degree.) But chronology aside, each section adds new information about events that have gone before, so that the effect is cumulative: by the end we have the completed writer, who wins the National Book Award for her novel them, based on the Detroit riots in 1967, when she and her husband spent several days barricaded in their house while mayhem raged outside, wondering when the violence would come knocking at their door.
More than cumulative, the overall effect is kaleidoscopic. With each essay we turn the magic cylinder a few degrees, so the same elements reassemble into new and newly reflective patterns.
Another notable way that Oates’s memoir is unusual: she loves her parents and the farm where she grew up with them, her grandparents, and younger brother. She has no complaints of abuse or other mistreatment, or of the straitened circumstances of their lives. In fact she has very few complaints at all: one is of the bullying she endured from the tough teenage boys at school (the same one-room schoolhouse her mother attended). That bullying turned her into a very fast runner. Another, which struck more deeply, is of the pedantic, joy-stifling approach to literature that she found in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. When she hands in a paper connecting the work of Edmund Spenser and Kafka — suggesting a relation between allegory and the surreal — the professor “returned the paper to me with an expression of gentlemanly repugnance.”
Oates was born in 1938 and grew up on a farm in Millersport in western New York State, not far from Buffalo, a region she describes as “minimally educated and minimally prosperous America.” Her father is presented as a handsome, charismatic man of many talents, who spends his working life, besides running the farm, in a tool and die-cutting factory. He is a strong character, marked by the manly virtues of the time: responsibility, honor, and protection of the family, as well as the adage: “A man never backs down from a fight.” Her mother, of a milder nature — she usually yielded in any conflict with her husband — is known to all the neighbors as kind, warm, and giving. One of the most touching passages in the book is an inventory of all the clothes she has lovingly made for Joyce over the years: “pale peach-colored coat sweater, belted; dove-gray jacket and matching skirt; lilac silk dress with lace trim, long sleeved …” and so on.
Oates’s love and reverence for her parents suffuse the narrative as they seem to have informed her life. She calls them
extraordinary people morally, not in their accomplishments perhaps, but in themselves, in their souls, one might say. It has been a riddle of my childhood, as I contemplate my parents, how, given their difficult backgrounds, their impoverished and violence-ridden early lives, did they become the people they are?
Joyce’s maternal grandfather, a Hungarian immigrant and factory worker in Buffalo, was killed in a tavern in his mid-40s, by another Hungarian. That is about all the detail we get about the crime, and that Joyce is permitted to know. His wife, left destitute with eight children, gives away the nine-month-old baby who would become Joyce’s mother. The “grandparents” who live with the family in the Millersport house are the couple who raised Joyce’s mother, Carolina. The fact of having been given away by her mother rooted itself permanently in Carolina, leaving a wound that would not heal. Even in her 80s she recalls, in a poem Oates writes in her voice:
It’s a long time ago now but I remember hiding away to cry.
When I was a little girl and my mother didn’t want me.
“Go away, go home to where you belong. You have a home.
Your home is not here.”
I did not know Hungarian but I understood these words
which I hear all the time, even now.
Joyce’s father’s origins are no less traumatic. His grandfather, a German-Jewish immigrant, aimed a shotgun at his wife and teenage daughter, but for reasons unexplained wound up killing only himself. The daughter narrowly escaped and became Joyce’s paternal grandmother Blanche, who makes cameo appearances in the memoir as a generous, cultivated woman who visits the farm laden with gifts for her grandchildren, and who takes Joyce to get her first library card: “the little girl was so excited she could barely speak.”
Joyce and her younger brother knew none of this history until they were adults. Theirs was a family adhering to the ethic of silence and secrecy, equated with dignity. When at last the nasty truths interred in her parents’ past emerge, they are told with “an air of embarrassment and shame.” Nor had the children known their grandmother was Jewish. “In Western New York State of those days, we had no idea what Jewish was.”
Oates’s readers and critics have noted the frequency of violence and cruelty in her fiction; no doubt it grows out of the shock of these truths — truths bearing on her own origins — being revealed relatively late, when she was already entranced by the mysteries beneath the surface of ordinary lives. The violence in her work is subjected to the kind of “code” referred to above — the traveling of a path in the mind laid down years ago and revisited so often as to be worn down to its essence by the imagination.
When, as a child, Oates looks at old photographs in secondhand shops, “The almost overwhelming wish comes to me — I want to write their stories! That is the only way I can know these strangers — by writing their stories ….” Thus in her novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter she reimagines a changed version of her great-grandfather, gun in hand: “What had not happened in actual life was fulfilled in fiction.”
The reverse happens when she’s five years old and her pet chicken disappears one day. Joyce refuses to acknowledge she ever saw a chicken killed on the farm, despite the vivid description of her grandmother in combat with the struggling creature, who was “thrown down onto the chopping block to be dispatched with a single swift blow of the bloodstained ax, wielded by a muscled arm.” Nor does she connect the chicken to “something white-skinned, headless in a large pan simmering on the stove, the surfaces of the liquid bubbling with dollops of yellowish fat.” And never, she protests, had she eaten chicken at family dinners. From her earliest days, fiction and fact feel interchangeable, both shaped and often reinvented by will and imagination; reality becomes a composition engendered in the mind, flexible as clay.
A key moment in shaping the life of the future writer was her ninth birthday, when her grandmother Blanche gave her a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. (This prescient grandmother also gave her a Remington typewriter when she was 14.) Oates felt an immediate affinity with the story. From Alice came the notion that she too could make up stories, along with a “sense of the world as an indecipherable, essentially absurd but fascinating spectacle.”
The other encounters Oates dwells on that gave texture and contour to her future work all share the quality of mystery. It is this bafflement, this half-understanding that stimulates the writer in her: the need to explore how and why destiny works as it does, what obscure motives and histories bring people to behave as they do. Years after Alice, two encounters with real girls ignited a curiosity that could only be satisfied by inventing stories sparked by fact. One is a girl she calls Helen Judd who lives not far away in a desolate area dotted with abandoned houses. Helen’s home life, so unlike Joyce’s, is the melodramatic kind that might inspire a lurid memoir. Both her parents drink and beat the six children, and the father is reputed to sexually abuse the girls. One night the Oates family is awakened by sirens and shouts: Helen’s father has set fire to the house with the family inside. Joyce’s father rushes out to join the volunteer firemen while Joyce and her mother watch the blaze from an upstairs window. The next morning the Judds (who all escaped the fire) have disappeared, leaving Joyce with just the sort of mystery that grips her imagination. When she comes across Helen in school a few years later, Joyce’s efforts at friendship, prompted more by curiosity than affection, are useless; the mystery remains with her forever — the inexplicable series of events that gave her good fortune and were so harsh for Helen.
Because of a bureaucratic shift involving school buses, Joyce manages to attend high school in Buffalo rather than the inferior local school she anticipated. This external change — what she calls a “quirk of fate” — has a profound effect on her future. In the Buffalo high school she is encouraged to go to college; she wins a scholarship to Syracuse University and from there goes on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin — none of which would have happened under the old busing system.
In high school she is befriended by a girl whose background is as different from her own as Helen’s was. Cynthia is from a wealthy family, lives in a “stately” house surrounded by trees, and is an accomplished violinist as well as a star student. Their friendship is intense but fraught with ambiguity; Joyce fantasizes becoming someone else, someone like Cynthia, all the while still deeply attached to her own life. When in her first year of college Cynthia commits suicide, Joyce is horrified and baffled. The enigma of Cynthia, her counterpart in so many ways, remains with her forever, no doubt finding its way in coded form into her fiction.
A major life-changing event occurs when Joyce is 18. Her mother has a third child, a girl, born on Joyce’s birthday, June 16. The advent of an unexpected sister in her parents’ early middle age would have been surprising in any circumstances, but Lynn Ann turns out to be severely autistic, unable even to learn the rudiments of language. In a masterfully restrained passage, Oates mourns the absence of connection with her:
Your sister has never once acknowledged you.
Your sister has never once looked at you.
Your sister has no idea who you are, what you are.
That you are, that you exist your sister has no idea.
No idea that anyone else exists, as she can have no idea that she herself exists.
If there is a riddle, your sister is the riddle.
Joyce lives and moves in the medium of language, from which her sister is walled off; the irony is painfully blatant. It makes Joyce feel guilty for her gift.
As she had done with her friends’ tragedies, she ponders the mystery of her sister: “An accident of birth. Not what we deserve, but what is given us. Not what we are, but what we are made to be.” It is a motif, an unsettling wisdom, that permeates her life’s work.
Graduate school, with its scholarly drudgery, proves a disappointment. The professors
did not regard literature as an art but rather more as historical artifact, to be discussed in terms of its context. History, not aesthetics. The thrilling emotional punch of great art — totally beyond the range of these earnest, scholarly individuals. […] If they were explorers, they’d been becalmed in an inlet, while the great river rushed past a few miles away.
Although she often felt “suffocated by books,” graduate school did bring two crucial benefits: she learned what she did not want to do, and she met and fell in love with Ray Smith, a fellow student, whom she married in 1961. She survived the personal crisis after his death as she had others: “It has been the mantra of my life — I have no choice but to continue.” A simple statement that explains a life of persistent effort and dedication.
Because the book is composed of assorted pieces written over decades; because it adheres scrupulously to its primary goal — the evolution of a writer; and because Oates maintains some of the reserve natural to her family (she avoids betraying anyone’s privacy), The Lost Landscape does not employ the familiar intimate or confessional tone. The character on the page called Joyce is not Oates in her multiple facets, but only in carefully selected roles. Nevertheless the memoir offers something more durable and estimable than facile intimacy: the unmistakable ring of truth, achieved through rigorous thought and beautifully articulated.