Friday, September 12, 2008

Wild Nights, by Joyce Carol Oates

Well... Ms Oates is one of the greatest writers that writes the way she writes. A lot of people write this way, but of the ones I've experienced, she's one of the best. It's a shame I don't really enjoy this style of writing, because if I did, I'm sure I'd be able to more effectivel rave.

As it is, I will say that Ms Oates obviously knows her stuff. the artistry in these pieces is well done, the research is obviously exhaustive, she spent along time making a very authentic, convincing imitation of some of the most well known voices in American History. There are five stories in this book, each telling, in turn, about the 'final days' of five famous writers: Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Some stories are better than others, or at least I enjoyed them more than others, but all are fairly well assembled.

Perhaps 'enjoyed' is not neccesarily the right word. Oates's stories are not 'enjoyable.' They're enjoyable in a lurid, voyeuristic kind of way, like staring at someone with a terrible birth defect is 'enjoyable', inasfar as people choose, voluntarily, to do it for no noticeable reward. But, they're messy, unpleasant stories, and they leave you feeling messy and unpleasant. That can be a good thing, I don't mean to imply that it isn't. The Dickinson story (which is how I was introduced to this book) is exceptionally chilling, and tells me, at least, a lot about the wayy that we treat Dickinson in specific, and the idea of the mysterious feminine in general.

But, the problem is, again, this is a very specific type of book, they type where even on a secluded island far away from any other human beings, a story about isolation, Edgar Allen Poe will somehow end up having sex (and we'll leave it at that). It's the kind of book where we get a description of Henry James mopping up human offal off a hospital floor. And it's more than that, because I don't mind reading about unpleasant things. It's that... I don't know, it's hard to place. It's like, underneath the narrative voice, you can almost feel the author's luxurious sort of sneer, waiting for you enjoy the book so it can smirk at you. Like Lolita without the sense of humor.


Amber said...

Interesting, dualistic review. I've always written Oates off as too prolific to be artistic, but now I'm intrigued.

hamilcar barca said...

do you really feel like it's being voyeuristic? Death is the great common denominator amongst us mortals. rich or poor, unknown or famous, good or evil; we all exit this life alone, even when surrounded by loved ones.

i enjoy reading the "last words" of people. much more interesting than their epitaphs. i don't think of it as being intrusive. someday we all will utter our final words.

Wild Nights sounds fascinating. a person's final days may tell a lot about them. i'll have to go looking for this book at Borders, if i can figure out where they'd stock it.

Unknown said...

Interesting that you should ask - this is something that I've actually thought about before - in fact, it works into a novel I'm writing, right now (yeah, don't hold your breath for it, or anything).

Death has a great and terrible power, it's a power that we are terrified of as people, but that in many ways is the only power we have. In all of your life, everything you say, everyhing you think, everything you learn or say or do, to some level becomes public. None of it is really done in isolation. When you go to school the first time, you are going to school after the manner in which your parents have taught you, when you think a thing, you are thinking it in the way it has been thought and expressed before, even if you never tell anyone it becomes a part of the self that goes and lives in the world, and that men know. All transformations in life are transformations into a greater transparency. Apparent life may be opaque, but there is a poetic piece of humanity that is forever universal, forever not unique. The only place this does not stretch, by neccesity is death. Death is the only truly intimate moment of your entire existence, the only moment where you, and only you, your core self tha tis unalterably yours is in communion, in a silent, uninterrupted, uncultured, unshared communion with someone who can be trusted to keep your secrets. It's, I suppose, the only moment where you can afford to be vulnerable. The idea of a near-death experience (apart from usually striking me as poppycock) is a disturbing one to me - it does in fact feel voyeuristic, too close to a place that we all cease to be able to live as individual souls anymore.

hamilcar barca said...

oh, it's fiction. i guess i should've known that since it's by Joyce Carol Oates.

Amanda said...

from what Jason has told me, "fictional" is a pretty light term.

Anonymous said...

I really can't stand Oates' books. Your comment about the author sneering underneath the surface of the narrative is a great description. Perhaps that is what I have sensed in her other books (or something similar.) I've tried and tried, but I just can't get into them.