Glimpses of the iconic writer’s youth.
Oates (Humanities/Princeton Univ.; Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories, 2014, etc.), the highly prolific author and winner of many prestigious literary awards, gathers 28 pieces, most revised from previous publications, into a tender, often moving evocation of the physical and emotional landscapes that have shaped her. Although she has published a volume of journals, an account of her grief after her husband’s sudden death, and many personal essays, Oates portrays herself as a reluctant memoirist. She worries about “violating my own self” and “exposing my very heart,” as well as writing “anything that disturbs, offends, or betrays any other person’s privacy.” Recalling a friend who committed suicide and another who was sexually abused, Oates felt compelled to change details, as well as to create “a quasi-fictitious character named ‘Joyce’—who is almost entirely an observer…more emotionally detached (and more naive) in the memoir than I had been in actual life.” Nevertheless, she reveals some intimate details: a childhood plagued by shyness, self-doubt, and anxiety; recurrent insomnia; the mystery and burden of having an autistic sister; and feeling like an outsider at Syracuse University (“as a scholarship girl I was a spy in the house of mirth”). As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, she was “profoundly disillusioned” by her professors’ stultifying approach to literary analysis. She fell in love and married, but her husband remains a shadowy figure, his memory too precious to share with readers. Oates identifies the roots of some works: a serial murder case inspired the much-anthologized “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” and her experience living in Detroit informed several novels. The circuitous, impressionistic narrative returns often to her parents, “extraordinary people morally,” whom she portrays in loving detail.
Though her past seems to her fragmentary and elusive, what she remembers—or imagines—is warmly, gently told.