Joyce Carol Oates

| | Comments (3)

In the course of my (overly) long and extinguished literary career I've had the opportunity to chat with, take seminars from, take full courses from, have dinner with, and otherwise associate with any number of American Men and Women of letters. The first of these I'd like to share impressions of is Joyce Carol Oates--possibly because our interaction was only of the briefest duration and yet made the most lasting impression.

I first encountered the works of Ms Oates in a Freshman lit course reading the perhaps overly anthologized short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" This was set side by side with John Updike's "At the A&P." At that time I had no inkling of the larger opus that was the work of Ms. Oates. One day I stumbled upon the gothic overrichness of the Mysteries of Winterthurn which, if memory serves, includes abduction by balloon, among other gothicky treats. I was only later to learn that Ms. Oates usually reserves the most gothic touches for her shorter works. For example, Black Water is about the last thirty seconds (or so) in the life of a woman mysteriously similar to Mary Jo Kopeckney. Zombie, which makes me shudder even to think about, is the intensely disorienting and deeply disturbing story of a psychopath who seeks to control people. . . well, let's leave the description at that lest someone wish to discover its arcane horrors on their own. Ms. Oates has a plethora of stories that cover the gamut from the macabre and gothic to the outright ghastly and outré.

I say all of this by way of introduction because to meet the woman in person she is the most unlikely perpetrator of these literary and literate horrors. Reading her books, one begins to question Ms. Oates's grasp on sanity and reality. But to hear her speak in person is to hear the voice of sweet and angelic reason. Her obsessions are deeply disturbing, but her personality lively and charged with an energy that I couldn't account for. Just being in the same room with her was a charge that I couldn't explain. I couldn't explain it at the time because I didn't care for her works all that much, so I wasn't suffering from groupyism. In retrospect, I still can't explain it. Perhaps it is the impression she gives, with her wide, unclouded eyes set in a plain but somehow lovely face, framed with hair that might be "pixyish" if you didn't know that this woman wrote books about boxing and recreated horrifying nightmares as a matter of course. She wasn't an imposing person, but she had real presence (not that kind of Real Presence). You were inclined to look for the transparent staircase or the stray floating barge that would accompany this refugee from a pre-Raphaelite painting. And to accompany this presence there was a strong, distinctive, incisive intelligence--the kind of person with whom to share a few moments talking about nearly anything is simply pleasure. Her nonfiction works spill over with it--she has a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach to critique and criticism that is a wonder and a joy to read. (I've been indulging in some more during this evening.) Over all, a brilliant woman who left an indelible impression in my mind and who in the course of a simple lecture taught me more than I ever knew I could know about writing and writers, although she said so little.

The literary world of Joyce Carol Oates is as violent as that of Flannery O'Connor, but one gets the impression that no God overlooks the lives of these characters. Ms. Oates gives one the impression that she would have made a very very good Knoxian Calvinist. Mysterious and horrible fates are visited upon her characters as if rejected by God, if there were one lurking about these dark pages. Ms. Oates's themes are violence--sudden, uncanny, unreasoning, frightening, and disorienting violence.

And yet her lecture, her keynote speech is as smooth as honey as invigorating as you can imagine for a group of youngish writers all fidgeting with their pens. And after Ms. Oates spoke, fidgeting even more.

I don't recall much about my conversation with her after the lecture. It was one of those rare occasions when I was too much in awe of the person to pay much attention to what was happening. Fortunately I was there with two people with the indefatigable gift of gab and the conversation lasted for some time, as I recall. We all left ready to write our hearts out--a metaphor that I'm certain would please Ms. Oates.

Okay, so there isn't much to this--but of the other figures, more: James Dickey, Robert Bausch (or was it his brother Richard--honestly I forget, Mary Lee Settle, John Irving, John Gardner, Katherine Patterson, Czeslaw Milosz and a host of others--Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, and others who came to the school or to nearby venues where we flocked out in droves to catch some of that ethereal vapor that comes from a published writer. Perhaps some of these stories I will share in more detail. I have lived a privleged life--too bad I don't recall it far more often.

Bookmark and Share


I'd be very interested in hearing about Milosz.

I've had that same experience of just being amazed at how the presence of the writer seems to differ so greatly from what is contained in their books. Updike, for instance, seems so New England upright and graced with such self-restraint given his books. Maybe it's the catharsis of the books that help give Updike and Ms. Oates their positive dispositions.

On the topic of Joyce Carol Oates, whom I've been reading since the very beginning of her career, I would like to suggest that interested persons read her novel *Son of the Morning* which directly addresses religion in ways that will, I think, shake you up.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 19, 2006 9:24 PM.

On Habits was the previous entry in this blog.

The Agenbite of Inwit and Ulysses is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll