Lucy and Todd

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Joyce Carol Oates — The Lost Landscape

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 21, 2015 at 1:35 pm

Dorothy Parker said she’d rather cut her own throat with a blunt knife than write a memoir. This seems good advice to all. Joyce Carol Oates has written oodles of books, including memoirs. No Pulitzer has yet accrued, but the Guinness Book of Records must be hammering on the door. Oates is the willing recipient of banquets, bursaries, honorary doctorates, TV crews and film adaptations of her work. Her writing – abundant, humourless, sentimental and enragingly circular – has a crass way of exploiting violence and murder as highly marketable subject matter. But, as H. L. Mencken noted, ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public’.

Then there’s her habit of repetition. In The Lost Landscape this foible is beyond belief. Even if Oates herself didn’t want to bother turning the numerous, previously published autobiographical articles here into a coherent book, her editor(s) could have helped her. To paraphrase:

I was born and brought up in Millersport, New York State. I lived on a farm on Transit Road, the rural stretch of Transit Road, with my maternal grandparents, who were Hungarian, and my parents, who loved me. My father Fred Oates was a sign-painter when he wasn’t working at the Harrison Radiator factory in Lockport, seven miles from Millersport. I always call him Fred Oates.

My Hungarian grandmother was heavyset and Hungarian and spoke little English; she made noodles instead. Hungarian noodles. My paternal grandmother Blanche Morgenstern lived seven miles away in Lockport. My grandmother Blanche Morgenstern helped me get a library card and piano lessons, and gave me books and a Remington typewriter. My grandmother Blanche Morgenstern gave me a Remington typewriter for my fourteenth birthday.

On the farm were red chickens who pecked each other and rolled in the dirt to get rid of mites. One red chicken was called Happy Chicken. [Happy Chicken wrote a whole excruciating chapter of this book – Ed.] I loved Happy Chicken. I told Happy Chicken I loved him. Often. I would hold him and say, I love you, Happy Chicken. Again and again. And again! Happy Chicken pecked at the other chickens and rolled in the dirt on our farm on a rural stretch of Transit Road in Millersport, where I lived with my parents and my Hungarian grandfather and my heavyset Hungarian grandmother who spoke mostly Hungarian and made noodles. She put them in the chicken soup. She put Happy Chicken in there too. I think. I will never know.

Everyone in the family was very attractive, and I closely resembled them. I went to a one-room schoolhouse in Millersport. It was a one-room schoolhouse. I got good grades there and at all the educational establishments I attended. I was destined to be a writer, because I wrote books as a child, like the Brontës. I wrote many books as a child. (And many more as an adult.) I also drew a lot of pictures of cats and chickens. Fred Oates worked at the Harrison Radiator factory in Lockport seven miles away, and painted signs. For many years Fred Oates’s signs lined Transit Road all the way to Lockport, seven miles away. Fred Oates painted them at our farm on the rural stretch of Transit Road. In Millersport. Where I drew chickens.

To save you the trouble of reading this book, here are the salient facts: Joyce Carol Oates had a harsh upbringing on that farm. An only child until she was five and a half, she spent much of her time hiding and, later, reading. The farm was not a success. Those chickens kept getting run over on Transit Road. Fred Oates tried raising pigs, but the meat was inedible. The pear orchard was a pain in the neck. Why did her grandfather buy a farm with a pear orchard, Oates moans. Pears ripen and rot too suddenly. Apples would have been the thing.

And other regrets – from friends who let her down by going nuts or committing suicide, to the fact that in their eighties her parents died. Her first husband Ray Smith, whose name (she continually reminds us) was Ray Smith, died too after forty years of marriage. Oates suffers from insomnia and tachycardia. But her most notable sorrow – and here the writing does wake up a little, there’s so much anger under the surface – is that her sister was severely autistic. Her parents knocked themselves out caring for her until she became too violent to have at home. Oates successfully conveys both her parents’s anguish and her own ambivalence.

There are vivid regions of this unmappable book. Oates’s list of terrible American foods has charm, as does a recollection of the dangerous outdoor activities of country kids. There’s a poignant passage on the many ways she attempted to make money as a child: she sold farm produce, hawked jars of Noxzema or The Reader’s Digest door-to-door, constructed costume jewelry, crêpe paper tulips and daffodils, and plaster of Paris bowls, she jigsawed lawn ornaments, singed quaint decorations onto wood, and grew jumbo strawberries.

The book is made up of short chapters, many of them readable, but there’s not one whole piece that is consistently good. Oates has a habit of inertia, restraining the action so that nothing ever happens. She disses Edgar Allan Poe for being ‘belabored…formal, tortuous, turgid if not opaque’, but this is a pretty good description of her own prose. The writing’s so flat, wandery , contentless and uninformative, you wonder just what it is she’s trying to hide. [Come back, Happy Chicken! All is forgiven. – Ed.]

It takes twenty chapters just to get some idea how she, and her syntax, tick. Her lavish punctuation gives, the, writing (a) halting; quality. She has a dispiriting love of parentheses (all of life is a parenthesis for her). And how about this for sentence structure: ‘these immigrants were desperately poor people of the class of those about whom Upton Sinclair wrote…’? Old Upton couldn’t have put it better himself. Her declared allegiance to James Joyce is unfathomable – what can a prolix waffler possibly get out of Modernism’s meticulous, succinct, witty, humane, artistic genius?

Though her overall stance is arrogant, her vocabulary is low-brow – apart from the typos (Joyce might have liked her accidental word, ‘ ominoua ’). Without warning she’ll abruptly break free from a tangle of awkward sentence fragments to intone in a lofty patrician vein about Catholicism, race riots or psychology; or issue platitudes like, ‘We had all been prepared for her death and yet–you are never prepared.’ For many years a professor at Princeton, she makes every effort to educate us: ‘The root of the word memoir is memory.’‘Harvesttime is the time of reaping what you have sown.’ And, most peculiarly, ‘A house is a structural arrangement of space, geometrically laid out to provide what are called rooms.’

Don’t get her started on her own writing! ‘In much of my fiction there is a simulacrum of the “confessional” but to interpret it in these terms is misleading. Not literal transcription but emotional transcription is the way of the writer.’ The writer. She’s always talking about herself in the Third Person. It’s weird. Back to the wood-burning kit with you, Oates.


(This review first appeared in The Herald, September 19, 2015)