Joyce Carol Oates’s Relentless, Prolific Search for a Self

In the weeks afterward, she felt calm and optimistic. When she was cooking spinach and the water boiled over, she smiled and thought, How interesting, this scene of a woman mopping up green water. Her depression was gone. She was filled with new writing ideas, increasingly ambitious and formally inventive ones. She felt separated from the “arbitrary collage of quirks, opinions, mannerisms, emotions, habits” that had made up her identity. “I felt as if my sojourn as ‘Joyce’ was through,” she wrote.

While she was in London, she published “The Edge of Impossibility,” a collection of essays, some of them previously published in academic journals, about tragic experiences in literature. “Being is an empty fiction,” she wrote, in an essay on Eugène Ionesco. “We must fill it up ourselves—we must invent, we must create.” A review in the Times described the book as brilliant but disorderly, as if written in a rush. In a letter to the editor, Oates responded, “Since critics are constantly telling me to ‘slow down,’ I must say gently, very gently, that everything I have done so far is only preliminary to my most serious work.” She went on, “There is a sense in which ‘I’ do not exist at all, but am a process recording phases of American life.”

In the midst of writing a novel, Oates sometimes felt so powerful—as if singled out—that she was startled when she passed store windows and saw her small, ordinary reflection. She made use of any stretch of free time, plotting the end of a novel while she was getting a cavity filled, or writing in the car on the way to book events. If her writing was going well, she didn’t want to stop (“one image, pursued, exhausted, then begets another”), and if it was going badly she also didn’t want to stop, because she needed to “get through the blockade, or around it, over it under it, any direction!—any direction, in order to live.” (After a few hours away from her desk, revising felt “as if one is coming home.”) Her friend Emily Mann told me, “I’ve seen her, in the middle of a party, check out, and I think, She’s just written a chapter.” To waste time made her feel “slithering, centerless,” she wrote in her journal, “a 500-pound jellyfish unable to get to this desk.” Oates was friends with Susan Sontag, who had a busy social life, and after the two spent time together in New York City Oates told her, “In some respects, I am appalled by the way you seem to be squandering your energy.” She reminded Sontag that “the pages you perfect, day after day,” will be the “means by which you define your deeper and more permanent self.”

In whatever story or novel she was writing, Oates often identified an alter ego. “Norma Jean is me,” she wrote in her journal while working on “Blonde,” a remarkable portrait of the transmutation of Norma Jean, an abandoned child, into Marilyn Monroe. Oates has described the novel, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, as “my Moby-Dick,” an epic tale of American self-invention. She weaves in quotes from acting manuals as she depicts the ontological anxiety of a woman whose life has become a sequence of performances. In her journal, Oates wrote that Monroe was “an image of us all, a nightmare emblem.” “I live now for my work,” Monroe reflects, at the end of the book. “I live for my work. I live only for my work. One day I will do work deserving of my talent & desire. One day. This I pledge. This I vow.

“Quiet on the set. And . . . action!”

Cartoon by Ken Levine

The problem with writing novels, Oates observed, is that one must finish them. “It’s that husk-like state I dread,” she wrote. She recognized that no one would feel sympathy for a writer grieving a completed work, but each time she finished a novel the sense of loss was acute. In 1976, after she completed “Son of the Morning,” a novel exploring the nature of mystical experience, she felt such grief that she immediately began writing short stories inspired by the mood. “How odd,” she wrote in her journal, “that I may find myself writing a ‘love story’ in which the male character is in reality a completed novel I feel I have ‘lost’!”

Oates was concerned about “spinning completely off into the dark, into the abstract universe,” and she took care to anchor herself to this world, through her teaching, her friendships, and her marriage—in each case fulfilling her role so responsibly that in her journal she marvelled over how “absolutely sane” she was. The writer Edmund White, who became close with Oates after she moved from Ontario to Princeton, described her as a “good girl—the kind of lower-middle-class girl who always does her homework, never gets in trouble, and always helps her parents.” Half her wardrobe was sewn by her mother, who regularly mailed her silk blouses and other clothes.

Oates had become engaged to Smith when she was twenty-two, after knowing him for three weeks. “My meeting him had the aura of one of the more suspiciously idyllic romance narratives, or suspiciously convenient,” she wrote a friend at the time. More than a decade later, she still felt as if there were no two people with so “satisfactory a marriage or relationship as we have.” They never had kids. “The thought of having children, while not repulsive, simply doesn’t interest me at all,” she wrote in her journal. She handled housecleaning; Smith dealt with their finances and was in charge of the garden. He drove her to the Princeton campus in the morning and picked her up at the end of the day. “I don’t tell Ray my troubles (I advise this for a good marriage!),” she wrote to a friend. But one spring day in 1978, on a long walk, she did tell Smith “my secret—which I should term The Secret,” she wrote in her journal. “I hinted at it, he didn’t seem to exactly grasp it, or at any rate, its significance to me. A helpful but not a very profound conversation.”

Together, they established a small literary journal and press, the Ontario Review, which they worked on for more than thirty years. Smith escorted her to readings and public events, but he didn’t read her fiction. “He sometimes says ‘Should I read this, honey?,’ ” she told a Newsweek reporter, “and I usually would rather he didn’t.” In her journal, she described how Smith read a glowing review in the Times of “Son of the Morning,” and then told her, sliding his hand around her waist, “I feel I don’t even know you.” She tried to change the subject. She wanted to protect him and her friends from knowing “how very deeply I am involved in writing, in a perpetual ceaseless meditation that totally excludes them, as if they had no existence at all.”

Oates once said to an interviewer, “I have a laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book.” At a pace of one or two books a year, she has created an astonishing range of imaginary worlds. She has explored the ramifications of political assassination, Pentecostal religious fanaticism, family strife during the Great Depression, boxing, nineteenth-century ghost stories, police brutality, racial violence, the politics of abortion. “Who could bear to write, always, in a single voice?” she wrote in her journal. “Who can tolerate that most tiresome of bourgeois values, consistency?”

Her body of work, as one long unfolding scroll, is perhaps more impressive than any individual novel, but some of her short stories—she has won more Pushcart Prizes than any other writer—feel perfect, like tight circles around a kind of unspoken abyss. Her characters, confronted with some form of terror or catastrophe, are often stripped of their social selves, reduced to a naked core. Edmund White told me that, if every writer has a signature scene, Oates’s involves “a teen-age girl, holding her books tight to her very flat chest, and crossing a field while being pursued by a madman.” Her writing, Don DeLillo once wrote to her, has “a kind of trapped animal quality, an inner desperation that strikes me as an accurate rendering of the voice of the culture.” Writing in The Nation, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., proposed that “a future archeologist equipped only with her œuvre could easily piece together the whole of postwar America.”

By 1979, Oates was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize, according to the Washington Post, and since then she has been rumored to be on the shortlist several more times. One year, she was told that she was the runner-up; another year, the book-review editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, acting on incorrect information, informed her that she had won. “I’m sorry that Daddy was disappointed—again!—by the Nobel Prize,” Oates wrote her parents in 1993. “I think, over all, it might be better not to be concerned about it; at least, we don’t have to discuss it.”

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