Joyce Carol Oates has always been something of a myth. In my mind, at least, her name is synonymous with literary sophistication. Her output is astronomical—she’s written over forty novels as well as short-story collections, plays, novellas, and criticism. She’s best known for a single short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, a piece about a teenage girl seduced into her own abduction. Although it was published in 1966, the story still encapsulates middle-class American fears over white girls far better than Fox News or Nancy Grace. I myself always refused to read the story. Its title evoked terror in me, like a high-end urban legend. Only since I started reading Oates’s latest memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age (Harper Collins, 2015), have I summoned up the courage to face her earlier master work. If anything, The Lost Landscape has taught me that even literary titans are human beings underneath the hype, and they themselves can get lost when venturing into an unfamiliar genre.
Oates’s forays into memoir are relatively new, although some of the material that appears in the current book dates back to the late 1980s. Much of her subject matter comes in the form of stories (she is a fiction writer, after all), and many of those stories are set in upstate New York, where she lived on a family farm throughout her childhood. Her recollections are often complex and beautiful creations, rich and densely layered. Some, however, are not. And while many of the book’s chapter titles contain the word “lost,” it’s unclear how the concept of loss is supposed to resonate throughout the narratives. Equally unclear is how these brief accounts illuminate Oates’s development as a writer, or even how the stories are supposed to hang together. The overall unevenness of the book leaves behind a sense of incompleteness, as if one has just listened to a long and nuanced sales pitch during which the salesman neglected to mention a product.
Oates is a fiction writer first and foremost. You can tell from the way she continually re-fashions herself into archetypal figures: Joyce Carol the schoolgirl, the teenage bookworm, the timid grad student. She tells heady tales of exploring abandoned houses and flying in open-air propeller planes. Almost effortlessly, she evokes the mythic quality of early life, parents and ancestral home, the comfortable womb of the twentieth century that many of us who were born in that era dream of crawling back into. She even tells a wonderful, spell-binding story of her favorite chicken from the chicken’s perspective.
Yet even with so many powerful moments, Oates’s writing can’t seem to provide enough justification, direct or indirect, as to why she’s presenting this particular memoir to her readers. Why are her stories important? Because Oates is Oates? At first, I enjoyed delving into the untold history of a famous author, but that impulse became weaker as the mundane details of Oates’s life kept coming. Sunday drives. Bible camp. Empty country roads. Knitted afghans. Page after page of generic objects, institutions, and rituals that white American baby boomers have been reminiscing about since they got old enough to guilt younger people into listening to them.
Worse still, as the events Oates describes approach the present, she seems to have more of a problem distancing her authorial self from her persona on the page, a lapse in technique that robs her prose both of its keen self-awareness and any sense of purpose the work built to that point. The memoir’s last hundred pages, which explore her parents’ final years, reveal no new perspectives on either the aging process or the fading Oates clan. Her observations on her mother and father become solipsistic ruminations on how much she misses her parents—sad but not especially enlightening.
In her afterword, Oates tries to explain why she fictionalized some sections of her book and refused to describe others, such as the more painful aspects of her parents’ final illnesses and their struggle to raise their youngest child and Oates’s only sister, Lynn Ann, who has severe autism. Also, Oates staunchly maintains that memoirs should not hang together because they’re meant to reflect the patchy, unreliable function of memory. While I understand the rationales behind the narrative decisions made in The Lost Landscape, I can’t help but be suspicious of a book that seems to frame any hint of weakness as an aesthetic choice. Oates is a literary legend, but even legends fall in the face of memoir, one of the great levelers of the writing world. For whatever reason, Oates goes only halfway in the task of digging up her past. The result is a memoir that goes only halfway in conjuring up what’s been lost to history.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars[boxer set = “frederick”]