I’m not sure why I’ve never read a book by wildly prolific author Joyce Carol Oates before now. Like most, I enjoyed ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’ when I read it as an undergraduate, and thanks to my good friend Brendan Moody I read her biographic story of Alfred Hitchcock with great interest. Yet for some reason I never sought out anything else, surprising when one considers how much I read and the fact that we have a few of her novels around the house.
But with all the effusive praise that her collection Wild Nights! has received since being published early this year, I knew sooner or later I’d sit down with it. A collection of five biographical stories about the late days of American literary figures, I was reminded of Cynthia Ozick’s musings on the life of George Eliot when reading. Rather than criticizing Oates for a failure to capture the true’ story of said writers, one should instead look at the way she (like Ozick) uses factual information to create literature.
I’d previously read the first story, ‘Poe Posthumously, or The Lighthouse,’ when it was published several years ago by Michael Chabon in McSweeney’s, but that didn’t prevent me from settling down with it again. Based on an unpublished manuscript by Poe, Oates has the author take a position as keeper of a lighthouse after the death of his wife Virginia. The story is narrated through a journal, which Poe agrees to keep for the doctor who nursed him through an illness (or was it his death?) and is interested in studying the effects of loneliness in humans. Though Oates emulates Poe’s style to a degree, her overall narrative does not remind me much of the horror genre. I’m unsure if this is for the best; though not a big fan of horror, I think I might have enjoyed the story a bit more had it skewed a bit more in that direction.
Oates continues with a sort of sci-fi tale in ‘EDickinsonRepliLuxe.’ A middle-aged couple with no children but a RepliLuxe, a sentient android with the personality of a famous person programmed inside. Choosing Emily Dickinson, the couple is both frustrated yet surprised by what they get. Noticing that the android is writing snippets of poems on scraps of paper, the wife is frustrated that she won’t share them with the family. The husband is frustrated by so much in life, eventually taking out his anger on the Dickinson robot. It’s easy to see the effect that loneliness plays in the story, both sides of the couple trying to compensate for their emotions with the android, but I just didn’t get much out of this story. Perhaps it is because I know so little about Dickinson and her work, though a lack of knowledge about the longer work and life of Henry James did not prevent me from greatly enjoying a later story. For me, this story was the least effective of the five.
The final three stories are more directly historical in nature, and therefore more enjoyable to me. In ‘Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906,’ Oates presents a portrait of a writer in his last days who befriends a young girl at a book signing and engages her with correspondence and the occasional meeting. Though Mark Twain is a beloved American figure, the inkling of impropriety with a child caused me to constantly battle between the man as presented and the historical figure, giving up some of my assumptions about him. This isn’t to say that Oates has Clemens do anything untoward, but perhaps that in this day and age, an old man tricking other adults so he can be alone with a child is a bit troubling. The story though is quite powerful, making me want to delve farther into the man’s life.
Oates has Henry James confront the horrors of war in ‘The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916,’ contrasting the tone of his fiction with that of the real life he encounters. James finds himself shamefully overcome by his homoeroticism towards the soldiers he speaks with in the hospital’s recovery ward. Oates provides a fantastic setting, bringing to life the horrors of WWI medicine, causing me to think often of the time period’s depiction in Atonement. Perhaps the most simple story, for me it was the most powerful. Not precisely sure why it was the case, but James’s anguish has stayed with me longer than any of the other stories.
Finally, in ‘Papa at Ketchum, 1961,’ Oates presents the late life of Ernest Hemingway who is constantly plotting to kill himself. Capturing the mental deterioration after a lifetime of alcohol abuse, Oates surprised me with references to shock therapy, something I was unaware that Hemingway had undergone. The bravura and ego of the ‘man’s man’ are rendered effectively, making one sympathize and hate the author at the same time.
Though all about loneliness, I find myself more drawn to the use of historical information to create fiction in this manner. While I have no doubt that there are many inaccuracies in these works, as there are in Ozick’s as well, these stories helped me understand and identify with characters, which is what good fiction does. The fact that Wild Nights! is about real authors is somewhat beside the point, yet therein lies my fascination. I would imagine that more Oates will be in my near future.