Dickinson, Poe, Twain, James and Hemingway haunt these tales of madness, loneliness and sexual predation.
When I was in graduate school and wanted a break from the big works of world literature, I'd browse the stacks for modern writers. That's how I came to read and become thoroughly depressed by Cheever, Bellow, Updike and Joyce Carol Oates.
Many books later, Oates hasn't become any cheerier. Her new collection of stories is about the disintegration of the self and the dissolution of the body. There is also some creepy sex. The five stories are competently written, but they should be read in a certain mood, one of cynicism about human nature.
"Wild Nights!" indeed, and rather ghoulish ones. Poor Emily Dickinson, or rather her "artificial replicant" avatar is molested by the husband of the 1950s-era suburban couple who have bought her. Throughout his story, Ernest Hemingway is trying to get his big toe in position to pull the trigger of the shotgun he's resting his chin on. Mark Twain, or rather "Grandpa Clemens," trading on his fame and his grandfatherly folksy charm, collects a harem of prepubescent girls he calls his "angelfish." The story follows his epistolary seduction of the lovely Madelyn Avery, who remains unaware of the Humbertesque subtext of his avuncular affection. When he learns that she is 16 -- the cut-off age for the angelfish being 14 -- he abruptly ends his correspondence. When her increasingly hysterical letters meet with silence, she goes insane and a number of other unpleasantnesses ensue.
In each piece, Oates ventriloquizes the writing styles of her victims/subjects, often to ludicrous effect. Here is how "Papa at Ketchum 1961" begins: "He wanted to die. He loaded the shotgun. Both barrels he loaded. This had to be a joke, both barrels he loaded. He was a man with a sense of humor. He was a joker. Couldn't trust such a man, a joker in the deck. He laughed."
The only successful pastiche is the first tale, "Poe Posthumous; Or, The Light-House." But Poe's narrative voice is already over the top, always on the verge of hysteria, so he's easier to imitate. "My soul, long depressed by a multitude of factors, has miraculously revived in this bracing spring air."
The tortuous, coiling inwardness of Henry James remains, not surprisingly, beyond Oates' reach. It is so singular a voice and approach to experience that imitation can't transcend parody. Despite that stylistic problem, "The Master at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, 1914-1916" is the most successful story of the collection because it takes pity on a great man bewildered and yet courageous in the gruesome hospital wards where he empties bedpans, cleans up blood and vomit, and falls in love with one of the horribly wounded soldiers he tends.
The other stories are rather cruel thought experiments. What-if? seems to be the guiding principle of the fates Oates imagines for her illustrious forebears. "Poe Posthumous" and "EDickinsonRepliLuxe" are fun, albeit in a squeam-inducing semi-pornographic sort of way. Poe agrees to spend six months alone on a remote island, invited by a benefactor who'll cover his debts if the writer agrees to keep a daily diary of his mental state. Poe assures himself that, despite his "fantastical & nervous disposition" his journal will become as celebrated an investigation into the human psyche as the works of Descartes and Pascal and Rousseau. Within three months his mental state is heading south, far south into bestial realms. I will leave it for you to discover what happens to him, thanks to a slimy lizard-like creature.
As for the ethereal Emily Dickinson in mannequin form, who glides silently through her owners' house, she is not safe in her own room. Given the premise of the story, you can imagine what happens when the man of the house attempts to rape her. Remember, she's a robotic doll.
I am baffled by Oates's intentions. Are these stories playful parodies? Or are they meant to humanize iconic figures that excessive reverence has turned into marble? Either way, readers must be willing to tap into dark recesses of motives and desires that we would be ashamed to examine by the light of day.
Brigitte Frase of Minneapolis also reviews books for the Los Angeles Times.