October 2010

Micah McCrary

nonfiction

In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews by Joyce Carol Oates

Perhaps an old professor said it best, while reciting Gorky, that “in order to make a great soup, a cook must not necessarily sit in the pot.” Joyce Carol Oates, admittedly, is a great cook, stirring her prose acutely yet with sweet-temperedness. The author of dozens (and I do mean dozens) of novels (whether under her original name, or under nom-de-plumes Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), Joyce Carol Oates has certainly figured out by now how to tweak her prose, and the fluidity of her newest essay and review collection In Rough Country is no exception.

Like Sontag's At the Same Time or Kundera's recent Encounter, In Rough Country strikes with a fervency that immediately causes a reader to question the urgency of the volume, for which Oates herself cites the death of her husband Raymond Smith in February 2008 as being responsible.

It begins with Oates's “Classics.” The book is broken up, deftly, into three sections: “Classics,” “Contemporaries,” and “Nostalgias,” each of which has scattered throughout masterful essays that are more than ruminations on art, but microscopic examinations of Oates's predecessors, contemporaries, and the world at large and small as she sees it today. “Poe evokes the 'voice' of interior madness, as it is a voice that is speaking to us with disturbing intimacy if not complicity,” she writes of Edgar Allan Poe in “A Poe Memoir.” And she writes excitedly, exclamation points hidden behind every collected sentence she puts on the page, as if the only way to be more passionate about what she writes would be to talk about it.

And it isn't just with Poe that she bites her nails, either: the book's first section covers Roald Dahl, Nabokov's Lolita, Flannery O'Connor and Emily Dickinson, all with a stature not of a literary saleswoman but a proud friend, ready to share her familiars' brightest accomplishments for praise and growing interest in all they've had to say. Oates knows she's been influenced by these writers and their work, and is keen now, decades after they've passed, to pick neatly at their successes and failures as writers.

In “Contemporaries,” Oates writes of authors who inform her work through parallel ideas that help shape today's cultural makeup -- and it's undeniable that some of the authors who write alongside Oates (such as E.L. Doctorow, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx and Salman Rushdie) mold today's literary culture in such a way that they have all earned the right to be discussed, especially by one of their own. “From the dense Faulknerian landscapes of his early, East Tennessee fiction to the monumental Grand Guignol Blood Meridian,” Oates writes of Cormac McCarthy, “from the prose ballads of the Border Trilogy to the tightly plotted crime novel, No Country for Old Men, McCarthy's fiction has been characterized by compulsive and doomed quests, sadistic rites of masculinity, a frenzy of perpetual motion -- on foot, on horseback, in cars and pickups. No one would mistake Cormac McCarthy's worlds as 'real' except in the way that fever dreams are 'real,' a heightened and distilled gloss upon the human condition.” She writes with such detail, such obvious adoration for the idiosyncrasies of her peers, that her reviews serve as literary works themselves, not simply because they've been published in a collection, but rather because they shine with an exuberance that only a writer as excited as Oates can place on the page without ostentation or bloatedness.

And in Oates' final section, “Nostalgias,” her microessays serve as a crescendo in the volume, wrapping up neatly her stance on the “American Idea,” humanism, and closing with notes on those writers and things which have influenced her and created the author we all know today. Not to mention that her husband's death has created a new writer of her, perhaps not altogether, but noticeably enough for her to reflect on what may have been decades of mistakes as a writer, as a wife and as a woman. “I am willing to concede that much in my life has been mistaken -- and yet: what is the alternative, superior life I might have led? Is there such a Platonic fantasy?” she writes in “In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters: Notes on Writerly Influences.” In epiphanal essays like this one, she shows us that even after decades of the professionalism and self-reflection many of us may already know, there is still much room for growth.

“Ontological anxiety,” she says, “the doubt that one exists as merely one, and the doubt that one can know the identity of this one, in any case” is her pristine subject here. In Rough Country's pages may be filled mostly with reviews of other authors and their work, but it remains primarily a review of her own magnum opus: herself.

In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco
ISBN: 0061963984
416 Pages