Oates (The Gravedigger’s Daughter, 2007, etc.) channels her energies into fictionalizations of the last days of five major American writers.
“Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House” is the “spoken” diary kept by Poe while he tends a lighthouse on a Southern Pacific island (after he has died). It’s also a frisky homage to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, as it subjects the neurasthenic Baltimorean to agonizing memories of love and loss, and his own transformation into a hybrid monster akin to the “Cyclophagus” created by his deranged imagination. “Poe” is considerably better than Oates’s creepy, overwritten portrayals of an enfeebled Mark Twain, obsessed with nubile girls (“Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish 1906”), and of Ernest Hemingway contemplating suicide (“Papa at Ketchum 1961”). The latter’s handful of moving moments are unfortunately dwarfed by a turgid recycling of a half century’s worth of Hemingway-related clichés. Far superior, and successful in utterly different ways, are her subtly imagined treatments of the not-altogether-dissimilar figures of Emily Dickinson and Henry James. “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital 1914-1916” presents the elderly James as a civilian volunteer caring for World War I wounded, who quickly become the “dear boys” he has always secretly desired. This is as generous and admiring a view of James as was offered in Colm Tóibín’s superb novel The Master (2004), and Oates caps it with a plaintive, dreamlike description of his death as this inveterate traveler’s ultimate journey. Best is “EDickinsonRepliLuxe,” a Frankenstein-like fantasy in which a mousy culture vulture and her frosty husband purchase a computer-powered replicant of the poetess, then are themselves transformed by “Emily’s” surprisingly strong—and human—will.
Our most industrious writer back at the anvil, making her usual unholy racket, while simultaneously throwing off sporadic sparks of unalloyed brilliance.