The writer Joyce Carol Oates, winner of countless literary awards and the author of over 50 books, remains best known for her much anthologized story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966). Part gothic cautionary tale, part family drama, it valorizes the life of an ordinary teenage girl and is dedicated to Bob Dylan – radical stuff at the time.
Oates has more recently ventured into memoir, first with "A Widow’s Story" (2011), which reflects on her grief following the sudden death of her husband, and now The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which covers larger swaths of her youth, exploring her influence by her family, community, and schooling, as well as certain striking friends who left a deep impression, then vanished.
A storyteller first and foremost, Oates’s entre into memoirs seems at times less comfortable than her fictional inventions. (Her afterword is defensive about her selectivity as a memoirist, likely due to criticism leveled at "A Widow’s Story.") That said, there are some wonderful stories here that offer insight into what drives her fiction.
One brilliantly odd fragment is narrated by “Happy Chicken,” a farmyard fowl who attached itself to young Joyce and became a beloved pet, while also initiating her into the grim realities of farm life. Literary influences include "Alice-in-Wonderland" and Poe, as well as other first-person narratives she consumed by early American writers. Certainly, Oates’s own writing echoes Poe’s eerie themes and Alice’s innocent forays into a bizarre and threatening world. Life provided her with darker material, too, in her grandfather’s murder in a barroom brawl and the deformity and suicide of an otherwise bright and talented friend, raised by a domineering father.
In these chilling tales, readers can catch glimpses of the unnerving violence of her fiction, which often features charming monstrous men and attractive young women, who in their combination of ordinariness, strength, and sexuality, walk a fine line between victim and survivor. “I have long wondered at the wellsprings of female masochism,” Oates muses. Indeed.
Oates’s youth also contains less gothic threads that sparked her artistry and drive. The loving, stable home her parents created played an important role in her development – in particular through her father, a sign-painter with a musical bent who learned to fly a plane, while remaining undiminished by his 40 years working in a machine shop. Her parents’ deep affection for their children shines through, too, in their devotion to Joyce’s severely autistic younger sister, for whom they remained housebound for years.
Her father’s actions communicated, “Work to do is not, as some might think, a negative but rather a strong positive for work to do means purpose, and the pleasure of having completed something.” One can’t help but think of Oates’s own prolificacy here, likely as much a result of this family ethic as of her own creativity – something Stephen King, himself no slouch when it comes to output, recently defended.
Oates’s rural birthplace of Lockport, N.Y., also looms large with its landscape of woods, creeks, and abandoned houses to explore, and its one-room schoolhouse. Joyce benefitted from transferring to a high school with better resources, including teachers with a broader sense of possibilities for a student like her. Vivid descriptions of her entry into Syracuse University as a “scholarship student,” feel reminiscent of Alice Munro. While college cemented her love of reading, graduate school almost beat it out of her through professors (all male, as was typical of the times) who saw only one right way of reading a text and that one involving heavy footnotes.
The only weakness of "The Lost Landscape" lies in an absence of specifics around a few key events. Oates’s choice to maintain her privacy on certain issues, such as her parents' care for her sister or the illnesses that preceded their deaths, is understandable. Those particulars aren’t necessary, but there is a kind of rawness missing at times that characterizes the best memoirs. I thought of Nancy K. Miller’s, "My Father's Penis," which describes her physical care-taking of her dying father and the uncanniness of … well, you get it. For instance, Oates refers more than once to the bullying by older ill-educated rural boys she repeatedly endured, but withholding particulars here diminishes the episode’s power.
Otherwise, "The Lost Landscape"lives up to its promise, giving readers a window into one of our most powerful writers’ coming-of-age and the forces affecting how she sees and writes the world.
Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and a regular Monitor contributor.