Monday, December 14, 2015

The Lost Landscape

My friends know that I have long been fascinated by the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. I seldom agree with the author’s political views (especially as displayed daily on her personal Twitter account), but her novels and short stories are so dark and revealing of the depths of the human soul that I have often wondered what could have shaped Oates into the writer she is.  Over the years, Oates has revealed bits and pieces of her childhood in magazine articles and books, but it is her new memoir, The Lost Landscape, that offers both the clearest and the most complete look at the “hardscrabble rural upbringing” that helped create one of the finest (and most prolific) writers working today.

Many of the pieces included in The Lost Landscape have been previously published in publications ranging from AARP Magazine to the New Yorker.  Some have appeared in previous of her books such as The Faith of a Writer and [Woman] Writer.  Some, Ms. Oates tells us, appeared in “substantially different form” when first published.  But the important thing is that they are now available in one, easy to find volume that longtime fans of her work are sure to appreciate.

The Lost Landscape is largely a reflection on the author’s earliest years through the eyes of the person she is today.  It does not pretend to be a biography or even a “complete” memoir because Oates admits that like most of us she can only remember tiny bits and pieces of her past in any detail at all.  She realizes that her memories may be incorrectly tainted by the perceptions of the naïve child she was when she experienced the events being recalled.  She uses personal photographs from her childhood to recreate as best she can the events memorialized by the pictures, often spending as much time deciphering what is in the photographic background as on the event itself.  She says:

“Taking pictures has been our salvation.  Without taking pictures our memories would melt, evaporate.  The invention of photography in the nineteenth century…revolutionized human consciousness; for when we claim to remember our pasts we are almost certainly remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a visual immortality.”

Author Joyce Carol Oates
The book is divided into three sections, each representing a distinct phase of the author’s life. The first, and longest, section begins with her earliest memories and ends with the conclusion of her formal education. Along the way, readers learn of Oates’s childhood on the upstate New York farm of her maternal grandparents, her early education in the same little one-room schoolhouse her mother attended, and her earliest attempts at telling her stories through “books.”  There is even a long chapter on one of her favorite pets, a chicken she and her family dubbed “Happy Chicken.”

The Lost Landscape’s other two sections are considerably shorter than the first and focus on what is essentially the rest of the author’s lifetime – from her days in Detroit and Windsor to details she learned later in life about the childhoods of both her parents.  Particularly moving are her final reflections on her parents that make up the book’s third, and shortest, section.

Bottom Line: The Lost Landscape is an illuminating look at the creation of a writer, a memoir rather surprisingly created by a writer who seems to mistrust the very genre in which she frames it.

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