Joyce Carol Oates, whose fiction is a house of dark mirrors into blue-collar American lives and minds, here tells her own story in a collection of painfully personal essays.
It will surprise nobody who has read a lot of Oates that she is willing to poke at her own life and self as piercingly and obsessively as she does those of her characters. "The Lost Landscape" focuses on her childhood and young adulthood and how they fed her singular, quirky intellect and gothic imagination.
Oates grew up on a farm near Buffalo, N.Y., the beloved first child of hardworking parents whose own childhoods were weighted by violence and mystery. A shy, awkward slip of a girl (the photos are poignant), Oates was ravenous to learn and acutely aware that life was fraught with pitfalls. Making friends wasn't easy — her friends were often troubled, marginalized girls — and bullies plagued her.
From early on, she was blessed and cursed with a penetrating understanding of human weaknesses and struggles, as well as the perpetually darting imagination that gave rise to her art as well as to lifelong restlessness and insomnia. (Her descriptions of how she wanders outside in the wee of the night are downright spooky.)
She writes, too, of the books she loved early on, including "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," which fed her "sense of the world as an indecipherable, essentially absurd but fascinating spectacle."
Like many of Oates' works, this memoir would have benefited from a tough edit. An early essay, "Happy Chicken," written from the point of view of her childhood pet chicken, is dreadful, veering between sappy sentimentality and depressing observations, neither of which should be coming from a, er, chicken.
But many of the book's later essays are brilliant — tender, honest, heartbreaking. In one, she writes of a troubled high school friend whom she tried mightily to understand and soothe, only to learn about the limits of kindness when the friend killed herself. In another, she tells how the birth of her severely disabled sister on the day she turned 18 brought little but sorrow to her life and those of her brother and parents, a somber narrative refreshing for its raw honesty.
Perhaps the best and most moving essays are those about her time at Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As it is for many gifted and sensitive young people, college was for Oates a perilous passage, one in which she learned the limits of her own physical, mental and emotional health even as she came into full possession of her intellect.
"The Lost Landscape," like Oates' earlier memoir "A Widow's Story," offers a window into a highly original mind. While it is never a given that a writer's personal story can illuminate her work, in Oates' case, it very much does.
Pamela Miller is the Star Tribune's west/north metro team leader.