Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘lucy ellmann’

Samantha Ellis–Take Courage

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:13 am

“A lone cur howled across the sleet-drenched moors as I, in semi-transparent skeletal form, struggled to the door of Miss Samantha Ellis’s temporary dwelling in Haworth. Having discovered she was writing a book about me, I had come to plead with her to stop forthwith, for I did not wish my life to be arbitrarily exploited, however fast the bicentenary of my birth might be approaching.

“It was not my aim to argue with Miss Ellis’s inaccuracies, inelegancies, or irrelevancies when we met, nor rebuke her curious attempt to prove that my treasured pebbles were the droppings of dinosaurs. Nor would I deign to refer to those dreams she related, in which she had supposedly found me sitting at the end of her bed, begging to be written about. Everyone must deal with their unfortunate proclivities according to their own moral fibre, however malnourished it may be.

“I did intend though to question her having the audacity to wonder at my taking nine days to write my sprightly preface to the second edition of Wildfell Hall – a very long time, Miss Ellis propounds, to write a mere thousand words. Are we athletes? Is writing a race? Does she approach every wayward paragraph of her own, armed with an egg-timer?

“But what I objected to most strongly was Miss Ellis’s incessant projection of her own subjectivity on to mine. O how passionately did I wish she would stop entwining my life story so cloyingly with her own! I did not want my Irish-Cornish-Yorkshire parentage hollowly compared to her Iraqi-British roots, nor my hair colour deemed lighter than hers, and therefore ‘depressing’. Nor need she eat porridge on my account! I felt no desire, either, for empty blandishments on my badly flawed novels. I had by this time recognized that (rather like Miss Ellis herself) I needed better editors than I ever got – despite all of our prancing round and round the drop-leaf dining table, my vexed sisters and I, reading our manuscripts aloud to each other after poor Papa and his outlandish cravat had retired to bed.

“Moreover, I wished that Miss Ellis would not subtly taunt and triumph over me with references to her love life, evidently in contrast to my own lack of one. For, indeed, though I am not ashamed of having died in ‘single blessedness’ (a putrid phrase I myself overused), it is aggravating when Miss Ellis sports her acquaintance with a ‘man’ on page 77, who becomes a ‘boyfriend’ by page 106, and later a ‘partner’, notwithstanding her unbecoming complaint that he is only ‘five foot ten on a good day’. By the end, reader, she marries him.

“Would that I could avenge these subtle slights! But I knew full well by now Miss Ellis’s unshakeable determination to turn biography into an impertinent form of autobiography. She litters her Brontëiana throughout with solipsistic soliloquies vaguely arising from whatever titbit of information seems to come to mind. On this basis, she announces that Emily favoured mutton sleeves, Branwell had a large forehead, there are fifty locks of Brontë hair scattered across the world, the poet Southey forced his daughters to bind 1400 books, Muriel Spark is ‘ungenerous’ to fellow novelists, and Thomas Bewick’s engravings were cruel (quite wrong). More bafflingly, she wishes Dorothy Wordsworth and I had met and that I got cream on my bilberry pie, and reports that she has seen Kate Bush live. Whoever that may be.

“In her earlier book, How to Be a Heroine, Miss Ellis debated which was the best Brontë: Charlotte or Emily. Now, perhaps in contrition for leaving me out, she wants to make a fetish of me. Yet she confesses to a growing impatience with our diaeresis! If I were to gain admittance tonight, my first duty would be to suggest she redirect her energies in future to author-victims with unaccented surnames.

“Finding my desperate knocking all in vain, I began instead a spooky scraping at the window, inspired by the histrionics of Wuthering Heights – I had always a great rapport with my sister Emily, alias Ellis Bell. But this Ellis was deaf to me. Hence, in muddy flight past the old Black Bull (ah, my hapless brother Branwell!), the Jane Eyre Lino Company, and Heathcliff’s Afternoon Dainties (both new to me), and briefly slipping into what is now dubbed the ‘Brontë waterfall’ (though I myself have no remembrance of it), I returned in defeat to the silence of my Scarborough grave, which Miss Ellis had already wept over in appreciation of the endearing drama of my premature demise…”

*

In her new book, Take Courage, playwright Samantha Ellis pinpoints the Brontës as ‘one of the most famous families in history’. We’re all taught to admire their pen names, pertinacity, potato peelings and pathos – and the way the three sisters achieved more than Branwell. Anne was possibly the most fiercely feminist of them all and, despite asthma and TB, had the stamina and chutzpah to write one excessively long and complex novel and one surprisingly short one, and get them published. The trouble is, they aren’t terribly good. She’s a true wheel-spinner.

The Brontës are all melodrama queens, but Charlotte and Emily added silly supernatural elements to the mix. Anne, who considered herself more down-to-earth, tried to stick to reality, her own version of it anyway. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Agnes Grey, the disadvantaged heroine Agnes slaves away as a governess, running after sadistic charges who kick her, spit in her workbag, and torture animals. One of them later even tries to steal her man. But as a protest against general inhumanity and in particular the mistreatment of governesses, the novel is marred by fairy-tale elements – the poor but happy family, an improbable shipwreck, and the magical reappearance of Agnes’s beloved in Scarborough, marriage-ripe. (Anne had a thing about Scarborough.)

The first two hundred and fifty pages of her other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are creakingly slow. Once revealed, Helen’s big fat enormous secret (her escape from her no-goodnik husband) is exhaustively unravelled. Huntingdon seemed okay at first, a dashing suitor, but as a husband he goes awry, with the drinking, with the cha-cha, “live now, pay later, Diners’ Club” (as Dr Dreyfus puts it in The Apartment). He calls their baby a ‘little senseless, thankless oyster’ (a rather good description of a newborn baby!), and mistreats the dog. His pals are even worse, outrageous, dissipated and violent. The Brontës all have a scary side.

Anne’s concerns may well be seen as fairly modern and even political. But her characters are inscrutable posturers, always edging oddly toward windows to hide their emotions. Charlotte made Jane Eyre a defiant little girl and a passionate, no-nonsense woman: you root for her throughout. Anne’s books are more artificial, they’re novels of ideas, rinsed in a goodly amount of Victorian soap suds. The religiosity of Wildfell Hall is intolerable: dreary Helen’s a self-declared expert on how to secure a comfy hammock for yourself in heaven – a rather selfish idea, I’ve always thought.

Making big claims for both of Anne’s novels, Ellis says their political engagement, class critique, pleas for education, exposé of governessing, and the suggestion that mad bad Byronic men may be dangerous to know, ‘still feel revolutionary’. Her own literary aims here are somewhat less ambitious: apart from some insightful, whimsical or frivolous asides, the book just becomes a walk in Anne’s boots, which were probably as muddied as her prose. Big walker, Anne.

In a form of delayed literary stalking (and not a little padding), Ellis stalks the moors. She reads Brontë biographies, even that wacko Angria and Gondal juvenilia. She Googles and Pinterests. She dons latex gloves to examine Anne’s last letter or a hideous hair brooch of Charlotte’s. She asks if Anne Brontë invented the romcom (no). And she takes everything, but everything, personally: ‘wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, over-worked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horror of a first job.’ It’s Ellis who’s scraping at the window.

“Samantha, Samantha, let me go!”

LE

A version of this review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017.

Naomi Alderman–The Power

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 18, 2016 at 10:23 am

Teenage girls all over the world have suddenly developed electro-magnetic powers that can be unleashed on anybody who bugs them. The effect of these electrical jolts ranges from a tingly sensation to scarring, shock, pain, permanent disability, dismemberment and sometimes death. So girls have all the ‘power’ now. Older women soon start zapping too, and thereby move into high office and make millions. It is the end of patriarchy as we know it: almost overnight, women’s tolerance of bullying and sexual harassment sinks to zero, and men start dropping like flies. They now become the world’s cowering victims, servants, slaves and playthings. Men have to adapt swiftly to their new lowly status, and to kinky, often catastrophic, types of sex.

In this viciously topsy-turvy form of female supremacy, it’s men who aren’t allowed to drive cars or own businesses, men who are scared to walk around at night, men who can’t vote. They are the sex objects, reduced to abs, pecs and glutes, and called sluts. They probably multi-task too. Boys dress as girls, to seem more powerful. Obituaries of men focus on the famous women they’ve influenced. And an American TV anchorwoman is encouraged to wear glasses, to give her gravitas, while her much younger male counterpart, an airhead, is only allowed to report on things like apple-bobbing.

There’s a strenuous attempt to see the idea through its various ramifications (though it takes men an awfully long time to think of wearing more rubber). This is no feminist utopia, nor, despite a few amusing switcheroo moments, much of a satire. Power brings out the worst in Alderman’s women. They don’t pause for a second to suckle babies or make art or try living in harmony with nature or any of that soppy matriarchal jazz. All they seem interested in is rampaging, murdering, running drug cartels, appointing themselves pope, prez, queen and goddess, and generally being jerks.

This plot-driven horror fantasy only gets more crude, cruel and icky, providing an unending parade of gang-rape, eyeball destruction, fish electrocution, and many other sadistic forms of torture, including a kind of ritual male castration, equivalent to FGM, and the minutely detailed demise of a man torn limb from limb. Male supremacists, with the help of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, John Knox, Fathers4Justice and a jihadist or two, could not have written a more damning denunciation of female ascendancy than this.

Why did Alderman do it?

She’s got a fun sideline going in illustrations of archaeological finds, and the online misogynistic backlash is wholly believable. But Twitter trolls are just nerds — they’re dull. There’s far too much about religion, and the writing can be shaky: ‘Her face was dry like there was a stopper inside holding it all in.’ Any literary adventurousness cedes to saggy apocalyptic derring-do, with the good guys wandering the woods, using whatever technology they have left in an effort to evade maniacal matriarchs. It’s for kids. By the end of it all, you’d really rather men stayed in charge.

LE

This review appeared in the Spectator on Nov. 5, 2016

Louise Erdrich–LaRose

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 25, 2016 at 6:42 am

In 1999 while trying to shoot a deer, Landreaux, a North Dakotan husband, father and home care worker, accidentally kills his neighbours’ five-year-old son. The two families immediately go to pieces. Landreaux and his wife Emmaline, both of Native American descent, retreat to a sweat lodge where they make a remarkable, if somewhat excessive, decision: they will offer their own five-year-old son LaRose to their neighbours, as a replacement.

How this altruistic step helps, and doesn’t help, plays out over the next three years. Nola, LaRose’s new compulsive-cleaning ‘mother’, already prone to ‘screaming, shouting, …rage, sorrow, misery, fury, whimper-weeping, fear, frothing, foaming, singing, praying, and then the ordinary harrowing peace’, now becomes suicidal.

But she takes to LaRose. She likes to read him Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are again and again. LaRose, a good kid, possibly saintly, puts up with it. Meanwhile his own mother, having agreed in principle to the sacrifice of her son, gradually learns to love her husband Landreaux less, resenting him for their painful predicament.

So far, so Jodi Picoult: the examination of a social worker’s dream of a conundrum, followed by the inevitable American slog towards some form of redemption. At first the situation seems hopeless and unfair. Poor little LaRose is forced to live with near-strangers, all to make up for his father’s momentary lapse. He longs to be home. When allowed a brief visit, he runs into the house, ‘clutching his stuffed creature, shouting for his mom’, and his teeny-bopper sisters ‘competition-weep’ for joy.

Rather anticlimactically, the families soon start sharing the boy, and LaRose obediently moves to and fro between the households. In both he is loved aplenty though he has to tread carefully, the grief is too fresh. But in his new family, he’s also on suicide watch – over Nola. And so, the problems of the parents eat unjustly away at the children in the traditional manner.

Among a large supporting cast, an old admirer of Emmaline’s and now the ominous local badass stands out. Drunk, druggy and disordered, Romeo lives in condemned tribal housing, ‘built unfortunately over toxic landfill that leaked green gas’ (that ‘unfortunately’ is pungent). He hangs out at a bar called Dead Custer and, like a maltreated dog, ducks whenever anyone makes any sudden movement.

A louse, but an entertaining one, Romeo attends a relative’s funeral purely to siphon off gas for his car and steal the deceased’s prescription medications. The nightly News, all about 9/11 and Iraq, feeds Romeo’s sadistic appetites: ‘Bush reminded him of all the things he hated worst about himself: weasel eyes, greed, self-pity, fake machismo. In this nation of self-haters, Bush could win.’

The story unfolds at a steady pace except for odd jerks in time and some vivid flashbacks to the purchase and rape of one of LaRose’s ancestors in 1839, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe girl. She sees her abuser, a white trader, as an ‘old stinking chimookoman’. Ancestral memory or, as Erdrich puts it, ‘intergenerational trauma’, seems to link this girl’s unhappy story to the contemporary vortex of loss, via inherited female anger: ‘the bitch gene’.

Spirits visit too, and not just during vision quests. Vengeful severed heads chase people over considerable distances. That’s fine, a touch of the supernatural, and highly relevant to Native American lore. But does Erdrich really believe in all these spirits watching over everybody, or is she just loyally positing it?

The trouble is, the after-life has become such a well-worn plot device in obnoxious mainstream efforts like The Lovely Bones, or If I Stay. Out-of-body experiences seem a dime a dozen in America. So we’re pretty blasé when Erdrich’s ghosts turn up at an Anne Tylerish picnic to eat barbecue meat, coleslaw, potato salad, and sheet cake swathed in combat camouflage icing. Imagine, coming back from the dead to chow down on American grub. Yuck-o!

Though there are at least forty droopy references to the ‘heart’ here, these may be more folkloric than sentimental. Erdrich’s generally not soppy, but she’s at her very best when she gets mad. A chronicler of the continuing destruction of Native American communities, she writes beautifully about what Indian children used to learn from their parents: ‘how to find guardian spirits…how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark.

‘How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones, how to weave reed mats and make birchbark pots…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick, dig certain roots, carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag…how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream.’

Whereas, in the government’s forced-assimilation boarding schools (to which many Indian children were sent, well into the Twentieth Century), a girl was taught ‘how to survive on bread and water…how to do menial labor… How to imagine her own mouth sewn shut. For speaking Anishinaabe. …how to endure being beaten by a board’.

These lawfully abducted children, torn from their families and cultures, faced indifference, discrimination, enslavement and loneliness on an undignified diet high in cabbage: ‘The crying up and down the rows of beds at night kept her awake, but soon she cried and farted herself to sleep with everyone else.’ How do destroyed people carry on? That’s what this book is about.

 

LE

 

This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

Gloria Steinem — My Life on the Road

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on December 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

I gave a speech in New York earlier this year in favor of female supremacy. At the end of it, I told the men in the audience to hand over all their cash to the women in the audience. There wasn’t universal compliance on the night, but some money did change hands. It was my first experience of this kind of activism and boy was it fun! So I can almost see how, once you get the bug, you can’t stop.

Gloria Steinem can’t stop, and that’s a great thing. She was the right person at the right time: flexible, modest, tolerant, indefatigable, determined and canny enough to weave her way past the ramparts. She calls herself a wandering organizer, and this book has a wandery form of organization too. Part memoir, part campaigning history, it mirrors Steinem’s keen antipathy to all forms of hierarchy. Unhampered by chronology, its chapters are almost interchangeable. So among her other achievements Steinem has helped liberate the memoir form.

It’s an inspiring political chronicle, illustrated by personal anecdotes and a few statistics, in the style of many a Steinem speech no doubt – which she deliver anywhere from subway stops, bowling alleys and bagel shops, to school gyms, flatbed trucks, YWCAs, churches, bookstores, college campuses, and backyard barbecues. Much of it is concerned with the patient business involved in getting bills passed, candidates selected and elected, consciousnesses raised, and enemies thwarted (Betty Friedan was one; the Pope another). It can get personal, and moving, but she’s not going to dish the dirt on her love life if that’s what you were hoping. She mentions merely a handsome boyfriend in high school, her engagement to a ‘good’ but ‘wrong’ man in college, one amorous tryst in a taxi, and her misguided attempt to fundraise in Palm Springs among her rich boyfriend’s rich friends, one of whom was Frank Sinatra, who seemed more interested in showing off his hangar full of miniature trains. ‘I try not to think about how much all this cost’, Steinem ruefully remarks. ‘In three days of talk about how to make money, I haven’t been able to insert one idea about how to use it.’

In the 1960s, Steinem wrote: ‘If men could menstruate…[they] would brag about how long and how much.’ My Life on the Road may lack that kind of sparkle, but it too has its moments. There’s the time she gave a speech on institutionalized sexism at a Harvard Law School banquet, nearly reducing one professor to apoplexy (a pity she restrains herself from making this scene as funny as it could have been). When writing an article in 1967 in defense of Ho Chi Minh, she needed to fact-check so she sent Ho a telegram. Finding his address wasn’t easy, and then he never got back to her – must have been busy. She also reveals that Bella Abzug once injured her vocal chords yelling at Friedan.

As well as co-founding New York magazine and Ms, Steinem wrote abundantly about presidential campaigns. She notes here Nixon’s excruciating attempts to ingratiate himself with members of the press at the back of the plane, by spouting some totally out-of-date personal detail about each reporter. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern both disappointed her: McCarthy for his aloofness, and McGovern for his reluctance to openly support abortion rights. Robert Kennedy would have been better, she feels. People doubted whether Geraldine Ferraro could ever be ‘tough’ enough to press the button, but ‘they didn’t ask male candidates if they could be wise enough not to’. She notes that the response to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 fight for the democratic nomination was way beyond rude, with nutcrackers made in her image, T-shirts that said ‘BROS BEFORE HOS’, and Rush Limbaugh banalities such as “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older on a daily basis?” and his comparison of Hillary Clinton’s legs to Palin’s. (How about his legs?) Steinem comments, No wonder the misogyny toward Hillary was almost never named by the media. It was the media.

We follow the growth in Steinem’s thinking about sexual politics from the early it’s-not-fair stage, through her adoption of Gandhian tactics in India, to her fascination with the Iroquois Confederacy, ‘the oldest continuous democracy in the world’. The real narrative that emerges here is Steinem’s increasing involvement with Native American culture and prehistory. She was helped in this by Wilma Mankiller, the first woman ever to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. Steinem was stunned by witnessing how Native American activists hold meetings: ‘It took me a while to realize, These men talk only when they have something to say. I almost fell off my chair.’

The best character here is Steinem’s father, whose marriage proposal to her mother was, “It will only take a minute.” His letterhead said, ‘It’s Steinemite!’ and he spent his life in the car, continually on the move, selling antiques to roadside stands. His ‘idea of childrearing was to take me to whatever movie he wanted to see, however unsuitable; buy unlimited ice cream; let me sleep whenever and wherever I got tired; and wait in the car while I picked out my own clothes… [T]his resulted in such satisfying purchases as…Easter shoes that came with a live rabbit.’ Steinem didn’t go to school until she was 10, and learnt to read by studying roadsigns, with their helpful illustrations of hotdogs and hotel beds. She was thus ‘spared the Dick and Jane limitations that school then put on girls’. But there’s a sense here that her mother, who’d once been a newspaper reporter, sacrificed a career, a life in New York, and her sanity, in order to have children. Steinem has been ‘living out the unlived life of my mother’ ever since – when she isn’t traveling, in imitation of her father.

Steinem is hooked on travel, and urges us all to do more of it. It is a bit silly for women to stay at home, when that’s where (statistically) they’re most likely to be murdered. For Steinem, travel has been a compensation, a compulsion, and a political tool. It’s the communal aspects of it she craves, not the glamour. She doesn’t drive, and reviles the isolating effect of private cars and private jets, or taxis with window barriers between the driver and passenger, that make her feel like she’s ‘ordering French fries’. A whole chapter is devoted to taxi drivers she’s met, including a racist she had to ditch mid-journey, a vocal (female) advocate of tantric sex, and a guy abjuring all forms of media so as to live in the real world. “I’ve been clean for eight months,” he proudly reports.

My Life on the Road downplays the assault on the female psyche that was ’60s America, but there are glimpses of what Steinem endured as punishment for being smart, good-looking, ambitious, angry and politicized. During Robert Kennedy’s New York senate race, she was sitting in a taxi between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. Talese suddenly leant across her to inform Bellow: “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Steinem didn’t erupt (neither did Bellow), but she admits that it’s been trying, having her success continually attributed to her appearance.

Steinem’s other major obstacle in becoming an organizer was her dread of public speaking. She found a way around it by teaming up with partner speakers. These included Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Margaret Sloan and Florynce Kennedy, African American activists who brought with them, as an extra bonus, a more diverse audience. It was a breakthrough for Steinem. Florynce Kennedy even tried to cure Steinem of her statistics addiction, by saying, ‘If you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle…you don’t send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!’ It didn’t take – Steinem kept her journalist’s weakness for numbers, but she still became an engaging if not flamboyant speaker. A firm believer in the power of talking circles, her biggest thrill is when people in the audience start answering each other’s questions, leaving the her out of the picture.

Early in her career, when she tried to get journalism assignments to write about women, she was told that articles about equality would have to be ‘balanced’ by ones in favor of inequality, for the sake of objectivity. Things have perhaps moved on. But Steinem’s still stuck trying to persuade people up and down the land that reproductive freedom is essential to gender equality. Curiously, she’s not in favor of matriarchy, and argues that it’s ‘a failure of the imagination’ to have one group dominating another. Now, this I resent. Equality’s the failure of imagination! It might do, in a pinch, but female supremacy would be a lot more fun. Men are too keen on money, oil, plastics, beef and golf. Only by restraining them can we hope to reverse the social and environmental damage patriarchy accomplished over the past five thousand years. And in this revolution, men can lick the envelopes and make the sandwiches.

LE

A version of this review appeared in Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2016.

 

 

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.

LE

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