sábado, 19 de setembro de 2015

The Lost Landscape,’ by Joyce Carol Oates - By EMILY FOX GORDON



‘The Lost Landscape,’ by Joyce Carol Oates


“Ringed by forbidden territories she nevertheless set out to explore.” Credit Corbis


Joyce Carol Oates is an ambivalent memoirist. In “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age,” she repeatedly ex­presses her doubts about first-person autobio­graphical writing. For one thing, she’s deeply wary of the confessional voice. For another, she has little faith in the reliability of memory. While she can vouch for the accuracy of “A Widow’s Story,” her 2011 account of the aftermath of her first husband’s death, which she based on contemporaneous journals, she can hardly back up this latest memoir with documentation. No small child, not even a Joyce Carol Oates, could be expected to take notes all day. Yet another problem: The memoirist is obliged to leave things out. “To charges of distortion,” she writes, “I can only say — mea culpa.”

This apology is tongue-in-cheek — Oates is not so much admitting fault as complaining that memoir is a compromised and compromising genre — but her tone grows more serious when she speaks of memoiristic betrayals. “Nothing,” she writes, “is more offensive than an adult child exposing his or her elderly parents to the appalled fascination of strangers.” This is a little high-minded for most memoirists, but Oates shows her true alienation from the genre when she observes that “not individuals but rather events and occasions — prevailing ‘themes’ — are what engage me most as a writer, for nothing merely particular and private can be of more than passing interest.” Here is a true fiction writer’s credo. For the memoirist, nearly the opposite is true. Especially in a memoir of childhood, the mission is to preserve the private and the particular, to make the transitory eternal.

In spite of these anti-memoiristic rumblings, “The Lost Landscape” remains indisputably a memoir. Like many these days, it’s not continuous, and is composed almost entirely of previously published essays. In this case, some reach back to the 1990s and even the 1980s. The greater part of the book is arranged chronologically. Small, tightly focused pieces alternate with substantial narratives to make a satisfying whole, giving the reader a coherent account of Oates’s childhood and adolescence. The last quarter is a pastiche of pieces and fragments without a through-line.

For all of Oates’s doubts about the primacy of the particular and the private, “The Lost Landscape” is full of specifically memoiristic pleasures. She offers pungent details about the small New York State farm where she was raised: Roosters chase away barn cats, hens attack one another, Bartlett pears begin to soften and bruise the moment they ripen. Her characterizations of her parents are blurred by filial reverence, but she gives the reader a good hard look at her Hungarian grandparents. A short piece called “The Brush” neatly captures Oates’s rough, dirty, handsome, teasing grandfather, who loved her and whom she dreaded.

Hers was truly a writer’s childhood, safe and happy at the center but ringed by forbidden territories she nevertheless set out to explore, sometimes physically and sometimes in imagination. In “Happy Chicken 1942-1944,” which is narrated by Oates’s favorite Rhode Island Red (an arch conceit, but it works), Oates is shown as a little girl, carting around this adored fowl, so much brighter and more alert than the other hens. Oates in turn was prized by her parents, who kept things from her. One day the favored chicken was gone, we all know where. Oates searched for her in vain.

The imperative to investigate what her parents concealed became, eventually, the impetus for Oates’s writing. This is the theme of the essay “They All Just Went Away,” which begins with a spectacular, sustained evocation of the dangerous joy of trespassing. In her childhood wanderings, Oates was repeatedly drawn to ­explore the burnt-out house in the woods where the Judd family (an invented name) had once lived squalidly, where the children — Oates knew them — were beaten and sexually abused by their drunken father. One night, in a rage, he set fire to the place. Oates watched the conflagration from a window in her own safe, well-kept house. (“Like all great events of long ago,” she writes, “it was an adult occasion.”) After this, the father went to jail and the family scattered. The older daughter, ­Helen, with whom Oates had once shared a wary, intermittent friendship, eventually turned up in the special-ed classroom at Oates’s junior high school. Oates tried to reach out to her, but was gently rebuffed. By now, shame had taught Helen Judd to accept her place as an outcast.

Perhaps because she prefers to deflect the narrative spotlight rather than occupy it, doppelgängers begin to show up in Oates’s accounts of adolescence. The first of these appears in “An Unsolved Mystery: The Lost Friend.” This is ­Cynthia Heike (another alias), a high school friend. Like Oates, she was bright, ambitious and driven, but, unlike Oates, deeply troubled. Undermined by a critical father, she committed suicide at 18. The rapport and rivalry between these two promising girls is marvelously dramatized, as is Oates’s persistent guilt at having survived her.

Another mirror-self appears in “The Lost Sister: An Elegy.” Lynn Ann Oates was born on Joyce Carol’s 18th birthday, a replica of her older sister physically, but profoundly autistic. Oates’s parents, who have been happily devoted to their gifted older daughter, are sadly devoted to this tragically defective younger one. Her care devours their lives. But Lynn Ann is not only mute and unreachable, she also reveals a tendency to violence, and eventually must be institutionalized. In an excruciating irony, she destroys the books her sister brings home on a visit, leaving tooth marks on what remains of a treasured edition of “The Golden Bowl,” with an “all but impenetrable introduction by R.P. ­Blackmur.”

In “Nighthawk: Recollections of a Lost Time,” Oates goes on to tell the story of her years as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, where loneliness and academic pressure so overwhelmed her that she developed insomnia and tachycardia. Ultimately, an unsympathetic (male) professor sabotaged her oral exams. As a result, she was awarded a terminal M.A., the worst possible affront to a graduate student. But it could have been worse; the doppelgänger in this piece is Oates’s beloved friend Marianna Mason Churchland (an alias), who broke down completely and withdrew from the program. 

Even as Oates suffered under the weight of the graduate curriculum, she found happiness in her engagement and marriage to Raymond Smith. But, oddly enough, no sooner does Oates introduce him to the reader than she abruptly pulls down the narrative curtain. “I am sorry,” she writes, “but I am not able to write about Ray here.” “Oh,” thinks the startled reader, who had been following along sympathetically, “I hadn’t meant to pry.”

But another thought immediately follows: Why, the reader wonders, is Oates telling us what she isn’t going to tell us? Why doesn’t she just — not tell us? The memoirist, after all, is free to work around material she finds too painful to discuss, to set the boundaries of her narrative wherever she chooses. But, all along, Oates has rejected the terms of the memoir. Now, having nearly completed the chronologically connected body of the book, she seems to turn away from the reader as well. It’s an odd, alienating way to leave things. The hodgepodge of biographical scraps she offers in the last two brief sections — a loosely woven reminiscence about her father, a list of favorite foods from the 1950s, journal entries, philosophical ruminations, a poem in tribute to her mother, an excerpt from a phone call with her father — does little to make up for the reader’s disappointment.

THE LOST LANDSCAPE
A Writer’s Coming of Age
By Joyce Carol Oates
Illustrated. 353 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

Emily Fox Gordon is the author of “Book of Days: Personal Essays.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/books/review/the-lost-landscape-by-joyce-carol-oates.html
Postar um comentário