Joyce Carol Oates: Laura Ashley and Mudwoman
Innocently browsing through our Minneapolis Star Tribune one morning (March 19), I came upon the “The Browser” column, which consists of short book reviews. Suddenly my eyes grew large in horror. Joyce Carol Oates has published a new novel. Lord help us! By some counts it’s her 38th. She’s sort of the literary equivalent of that California woman who gave birth to octuplets.
It’s called Mudwoman, which does not bode well. Here’s the review:
By Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 428 pages, $26.99)
Madness and malevolence squirm on almost every page in Joyce Carol Oates’ 38th novel, a sprawling tale that showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Oates, 74, one of America’s greatest living novelists. Mudwoman is M.R. Neukirchen, a brilliant university president who is haunted by memories of the abuse inflicted by her birth mother before she was adopted by a genial Quaker couple. M.R.’s adulthood is plagued by nasty, intrusive strangers and disturbing events, many with ties to post-2001 U.S. politics and policies. Oates’ dark brilliance is ever evident in her main characters, complex souls with mysterious corners in their psyches, and in her cartoonlike minor ones, who are usually dangerously undereducated and undermedicated men with yellow teeth, beady eyes, dirty hands and bad grammar. But “Mudwoman,” which Oates’ publisher is touting as one of her “giant” novels, is deeply flawed. Characters you’re sure will become pivotal instead just disappear. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether Mudwoman is doing or dreaming, as in one nasty scene in which she dismembers a “conservative” colleague. And Oates’ moments of genius get lost in the time-hopping, dash-heavy narrative. Still, a failed novel by Oates would be a masterpiece by many another writer, and her chief themes — that demons denied or ignored inevitably will rise up to sabotage an individual or a nation and that human nature is rarely admirable (“What is man? A ball of snakes,” she quotes Nietzsche as saying in her epigraph) — are nothing to sling mud at. PAMELA MILLER, NIGHT METRO EDITOR
Reading this description of the novel, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or scream.
Now here’s a quote from A Widow’s Story, her memoir about the death of her husband and the experience of becoming a widow unexpectedly:
“Despite my reputation as a writer my personal life has been as measured and decorous as Laura Ashley wallpaper.”
Mudwoman vs. Laura Ashley. It gives one pause.
One of the things I was interested in tracking in A Widow’s Story was what JCO revealed about her writing life and her imagination. I’d love to know what it is that drives her, how she found the time to write as much as she has, and maybe most of all, why and how “Laura Ashley” produces so much violence, rape, incest, suicide, and psychological darkness out of an apparently measured and decorous personal life.
In the memoir she gives a clue about what drives her when she says:
“There are those—a blessed lot—who can experience life without the slightest glimmer of a need to add anything to it—any sort of ‘creative’ effort; and there are those—an accursed lot?—for whom the activities of their own brains and imaginations are paramount. The world for these individuals may be infinitely rich, rewarding and seductive—but it is not paramount. The world maybe be interpreted as a gift, earned only if one has created something over and above the world.”
Out of this obviously deep need to create came Joyce Carol Oates the writer. But she also reveals a “normal,” domestic, academic life that seems almost innocent in comparison to what her imagination conjures up. She says, “Though I may have had, since adolescence, a kind of intellectual/literary precocity, I had not experienced much; nor would I experience much until I was well into middle-age—the illnesses and deaths of my parents, this unexpected death of my husband.” This dichotomy between her often torrid imagination and her actual life is so interesting to me. The gap between the two seems larger than it is for most writers. It’s interesting too, that she seems to see JCO the writer as a construct of sorts, not her real self, her real life. I can’t recall ever coming across this notion in another writer. Perhaps because she’s so famous, perhaps for other reasons, she describes a sense of dissociation from her identity as a writer:
“At the University it is my task to impersonate ‘Joyce Carol Oates.
“Strictly speaking, I am not impersonating this individual since ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ doesn’t exist, except as an author-identification. On the spines of books shelved in certain libraries and bookstores you will see OATES but this is a descriptive term, this is not a noun.
This is not a person. This is not a life.
A writing-life is not a life.”
I wonder if she would have made this point before her husband died. She’s writing in A Widow’s Story in a paroxysm of grief, regret and guilt. She wonders at a certain point if she spent too much time in “the world of my/the imagination – and not enough time with my husband.” One wonders if she had a choice. The need to create something “over and above” the world may have been too strong in her to be denied.
She seems bemused about “Joyce Carol Oates,” as if she doesn’t know quite what to make of her herself:
“John Updike once said that he’d created ‘Updike’ out of the sticks and mud of his Pennsylvania boyhood—so too, I’d created ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ out of the sticks, mud fields and waterways of my upstate New York girlhood. Both of us—that is, our actual selves—John, Joyce—seem to have been amazed, over all, by the accomplishments of our namesakes. A shelf of books looks formidable when glimpsed all at once—as if the achievement were all at once, instead of wrought—laboriously, obsessively—through years of effort.”
But let’s face it, Updike’s shelf of books still falls way short of JCO’s.
She has written about some of the factors behind the writer called Joyce Carol Oates in an article that appeared in The New York Times in 1982 called “Stories that Define Me.” (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/07/05/specials/oates-define.html?_r=1)
“One of the stories I tell myself has to do with the dream of a ‘sacred text.’ Perhaps it is a dream, an actual dream: to set down words with such talismanic precision, such painstaking love, that they cannot be altered—that they constitute a reality of their own, and are merely referential…
“The story of the elusive sacred text has something to do with a childlike notion of omnipotent thoughts, a wish for immortality through language, a command that time stand still. What is curious is that writing, the act of writing, often satisfies these demands. We throw ourselves into it with such absorption, writing eight or 10 hours at a time, writing in our daydreams, composing in our sleep; we enter that fictional world so deeply that time seems to warp or to fold back in upon itself. Where do you find the time, people ask, to write so much? But the time I inhabit is protracted; my interior clock moves with frustrating slowness.”
What she says about time above reminded me of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and no, my fingers were NOT on the wrong keys when I typed his name) describes in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly (let’s just go with that) says that when one is in the flow of creativity:
“The sense of time becomes distorted. Generally in flow we forget time, and hours may pass by in what seem like a few minutes. Or the opposite happens: A figure skater may report that a quick turn that in real time takes only a second seems to stretch out for ten times as long. In other words, clock time no longer marks equal lengths of experienced time; our sense of how much time passes depends on what we are doing.”
Most of us have experienced this loss of a sense of actual time when we are deeply engaged in a creative project. One could even become addicted to it, as JCO seems to be.
In the same essay, she describes how story-telling began for her before she could even write:
“Those stories I told to myself, and eventually to others in the family, as a child were tirelessly executed in pictures, in pencil or crayon, because I couldn’t yet write…The tablets were filled with these characters acting out complicated narrative—surprises, chase scenes, mistaken identities, happy endings—in the unconscious pursuit of (as I couldn’t have known then) the novel.”
The story-telling impulse is so primal, most children engage in it. Writers are just those who keep at it. But Oates displays a precocity and productivity that most children don’t have. She recounts how as a young girl she had “written several thousands of pages of prose (on tablets dutifully supplied by my parents, eventually on sheets of real paper by way of first a toy typewriter—marvelous zany invention—and then on a real typewriter, given to me at the age of 14).” She already had the writing obsession.
When she was a sophomore in high school, she discovered Hemingway’s In Our Time at the public library, and “saw how chapters in an ongoing narrative might be self-contained units, both in the service of the larger structure and detachable, in a manner of speaking, from it.”
She “apprenticed herself, with her usual zeal, to this beautiful and elusive new form,” writing several novels and eventually worked her way back into the short story form. During college at Syracuse, she has described how she wrote novel after novel, always throwing them out when she completed them. She won the college short story contest sponsored by Mademoiselle when she was 19, and published her first book, a collection of short stories, when she was 25.
She also relates another aspect that contributed to her development as a writer. She was bullied as a child by children of both sexes, though primarily male:
“Once or twice I was singled out for not quite clinical molestation, less because I was female than because I was, at the moment, there…such systematic, tireless, sadistic persecution had the consequence of making me love with a passion the safe, even magical confines of home and schoolroom (cynosures of gentleness, affection, calm, sanity, books) and later, library. For outside these magical confines the true brutes, or merely brutish Nature, await us.”
Her experience of being relentlessly bullied brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s saying that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information [or material] about life to last him the rest of his days. (Along with O’Connor’s “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”) One senses the origins of some of Oates’ material about the violence and depravity of human beings in these early childhood experiences. The territory of her own imagination must have become the place she retreated to, where experiences and feelings became transformed and mastered in fiction.
In A Widow’s Story, Joyce “Laura Ashley” Smith, the wife of Raymond Smith, seems like a very nice person, someone mild and modest, who doesn’t wish to offend, who is averse to conflict, who only expresses anger directly once in the book, to her husband’s physician who put his whole leg in his mouth after Ray’s death. It’s a little hard to match that Joyce with Joyce Carol “Mudwoman” Oates, famous, prolific American author who has written some great novels and short stories, who has moved in the highest circles of American literature for many decades, whose friends are some of the best known writers of our time. You get glimpses of that writer in A Widow’s Story, but nothing that parts the veil on what ultimately makes her tick…and tick… and tick…
[You can see Gloria Vanderbilt’s wonderful paintings of Joyce Carol Oates at http://www.gloriavanderbiltfineart.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=CTGY&Category_Code=paintings)