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BooksNovember 6, 2015

Books: Book of the Week – “The Three Saddest Words in the English Language,” said Gore Vidal, “Are ‘Joyce Carol Oates'”

The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age by Joyce Carol Oates

‘As a writer,’ writes Joyce Carol Oates, 241 pages into her memoir, ‘I have not been drawn to what is called memoirist prose because I have never felt that my life could be nearly as interesting as what my imagination could make of another’s life.’

She may well have been right. Joyce Carol Oates is one of the world’s most prolific novelists – Anne Tyler said whenever she feels that she has published too many novels, she just thinks of Joyce Carol Oates. Unlike Tyler, who stays firmly on the same ground, Oates moves around. Not all her novels grip. But at her best she is splendid – her American Appetites, an Updike-like novel about the social repercussions that occur when the woman in a middle class couple dies after falling through a window during a party at her own home, was one of those books I pressed on everyone I knew.

The same is true of her novella Black Water, a fictionalised account of the infamous Chappaquiddick accident in which Ted Kennedy escaped but the young woman with him didn’t. I read it at least twenty years ago yet I will never forget that Oates described the imprint of Kennedy’s shoe on Mary Jo Kopechne’s face.

Just a few pages in to this memoir, I wondered what on earth induced her to write the first chapter from the point of view of a hen called Happy Chicken. Happy Chicken, adored by her little owner Joyce Carol, was one of a large flock. And then one day, she simply wasn’t there. Although this hinted-at strangulation by sadistic adult was very hard on her little owner, there was a long-term advantage in broad terms: Happy Chicken could not write the whole book. By the time we get out of HC’s less than capable claws, Oates has clearly worked her way sideways into her own story. And we can settle in for what becomes an uneven ride.

Memoir can be the most satisfying of reads, particularly because when someone is writing about themselves the reader has the opportunity to read the subtext, so much the better when it appears to be unintentional. A top read, for example, is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Slipstream, in which her constant casual reference to the burden of her own beauty becomes strangely riveting.

Oates avoids the chance of this happening by continually explaining her young self. She adores the parenthetic statement and once I noticed this stylistic device, the sight of yet another advancing bracket had my heart palpitating unhealthily. There’s something about parenthesis which implies that the author doesn’t trust her reader.

It’s hard not to wonder how this writer can be so innocent when looking back at her own life. When she writes about how she loved school, her pencil box, Alice in Wonderland, how back then people took more risks than they do now, how when they went for their Sunday drives her mother knew who lived in all the houses they passed, what point is she actually making? She does pause to extrapolate that her mother’s knowledge of the names and houses of neighbours could have been the cause of her own fascination with people and settings. It all too often feels as if she’s desperately looking for a story – any story – because, as she says, ‘we have forgotten most of our lives.”’

She even becomes pedantic, going into long-winded definitions of ‘house’ and ‘home’ as if she’s First Speaker in her junior high’s debating team. Then suddenly we see a glimpse of the genius she can be. Her story of her neighbours the Judds, and what becomes of their abandoned garden after they move, is compelling.

Then she’s uneasily back to herself and writing about one of her first significant friendships: ‘(Oddly,)’ she parenthesises, ‘(both Jean and I were outstanding badminton players at the junior high: when we played together, Jean beat me perhaps three times out of five, but each of us could beat any other girl opponent in the school.)’ Oddly? Oddly? You only have to look at the heartrendingly guileless little girl on the front cover – poised, it seems, to break into a bad rendition of The Good Ship Lollipop – to know she and Jean were exactly the sort of girls who were good at badminton.

She doesn’t want to write about her marriage and widowhood, other than a rather sweet description of the two brainboxes finding each other. She reminds us she’s already written a whole book about being widowed. She does write about her career, about her fiction being picked up by Mademoiselle magazine while still in her teens, and how not being accepted into the PhD programme meant she became a novelist rather than an academic. And amongst all this is some excellent comment on the teaching and the reading of literature at university level. When it comes down to it – and she’s not the first person to have noticed – people who teach literature often find themselves with very little time to actually read novels.

It’s a strange struggle of a book but in it there are superbly written gems. They happen when she moves herself away from herself, and turns her wise and wonderful eye on others. You can’t read about the life of her sister, born when Joyce Carol was 18, and severely autistic, without wanting to take that drippy little girl simpering away on the cover into your arms, whisper that it’s okay, Happy Chicken made it through the fence alive, and give her a great big hug.

The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age by Joyce Carol Oates is available at Unity Books.

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