Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Joyce Carol Oates's 60-Year Romance

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Joyce Carol Oates's 60-Year Romance

Article excerpt

"I have never thought," writes Joyce Carol Oates in her new memoir, The Lost Landscape, "that my life could be nearly as interesting as what my imagination could make of another's life." Did this sense of being unremarkable stand in the way of her writing her memoirs, 1 ask the author down a transatlantic phone line. "Oh, no. It was very enjoyable. Very."

The Lost Landscape is a collection of essays written over the past decade, most of them revised. The book picks over events from Oates's early life on a farm in New York State, yet it is also an elegy for the United States as it was in the middle third of the 20th century. Oates's family was part of a pragmatic, practical working class. "The one thing I think is so different about our generation is that most of the people I know don't do anything with our hands except type. But my parents and grandparents did everything with their hands," she says.

Bucolic images of a rural American childhood, complete with a one-room schoolhouse and a favourite chicken that narrates an early section of the book, are joined by far darker events. Several essays focus on the lives of two of Oates's schoolmates, one marked by incest, abuse and learning difficulties and the other by suicide. (She notes in the afterword that the story of incest was a portmanteau of various contemporaries' experiences.)

Oates tells me that even though the form brings memory to the fore, she also wanted to write about our tendency to repress what we find disturbing. "I don't really remember the slaughter side of our farm, for example. …

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