Sunday, April 6, 2008

Once every year, and sometimes twice, a book from Joyce Carol Oates can be found in one of the overflowing canvas bags that arrive at my office door every day. Over her long and distinguished career she has published more novels, short story collections and essays than one can easily count. She has even written books under pseudonyms (Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly). One surmises the reason is because a sole given name just wasn’t enough for her superhuman range and output.

But a book from Miss Oates is not often an easy read, and apart from some long-ago swooning over her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” it would be misleading to call myself a fan.

So it was something of a surprise when tackling “Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway,” I found myself not only enthralled but transported.

In the book, Miss Oates resurrects Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, lions of the American literary canon all, with astonishing clarity and punch. Using the language of the writers themselves — itself an incredible feat — she zeroes in on some aspect of the writers’ lives, something that marks what we have of them for posterity, and then she cuts loose.

We meet Edgar Allan Poe contemplating his life during time spent as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Chile; Emily Dickinson reinvented as a kind of robot suddenly transported to a modern suburban home where her warmth is fruitlessly sought by a disappointed wife locked in a desolate marriage; Samuel Clemens as an elderly man touched by a gaggle of young girls who love his work but his behavior is called into question; Henry James, as a hospital volunteer in World War I London, animated by what can only be called sexual yearning, the very thing he is famously chided for lacking; and Ernest Hemingway, entangled with all the violence and mystery of his decision to take his own life.

Readers do not learn until the end of the book that the chapter on Poe was “suggested by the single-page manuscript titled ‘The Light-House,’ which was found among the papers of Edgar Allan Poe after his death on October 7, 1849, in Baltimore,” or that the chapter “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” “draws generally upon the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson and visually upon the photographs by Jerome Liebling in ‘The Dickinsons of Amherst’ (2001)”; or that “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” is a work of fiction drawn, in part, upon passages from ‘The Complete Notebooks of Henry James,’ edited by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers; and ‘Henry James: A Life,’ by Leon Edel. The Clemens and Hemingway chapters are likewise inspired by scholarly books about the authors.

But even without knowing this, the reader senses early on that these mini-memoirs did not spring whole from Miss Oates’ vivid imagination. The fingerprints of scholarship and literary criticism are everywhere to be found, no less than is the love of these writers and the remarkable lives they led.

Not surprisingly, the chapter on Hemingway is the most rugged and violent: “There is an unmistakable odor of sweat on gunmetal. It is not a pleasant odor. He recalled that, yes, his father’s hands had shaken, too. As a boy he had observed this. As a boy he had scorned such weakness. Yet his father had managed to hold his gun steady and to kill himself with a single bullet to the brain.”

Matching Hemingway’s resolve is Poe’s ethereal, haunting presence, made immediate and intimate by the diary entries that shape his story. My favorite section of the book belongs to Emily Dickinson, and one could make a good case that she is Miss Oates’ favorite, too.

She is rendered as a “Repliluxe,” described as follows: “What the RepliLuxe is, technically speaking, is a brilliantly rendered mannikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original individual, as if his or her esssence, or ‘soul’ — if you believe in such concepts — had been sucked out of the original being, and reinstalled, in an entirely new environment.”

This Emily Repliluxe wears black dresses, writes poems, addresses her “masters” with deference and weeps, but on first sight the Krims, her employers, are somewhat alarmed. “The First shock: Emily was so small.” The relationship they develop with Emily as they circumnavigate buttons called “sleep mode” or “accelerate” does not prepare them for the moment she wishes to be free. Or what that event tells them about themselves.

The title of the book, “Wild Nights!,” is taken from an Emily Dickenson poem, but the measure of this book is kin to the poet’s oeuvre as well. There is loneliness here. Also depth and character in ample measure. And there is a reminder here about what literature and its best practitioners teach us about mortality.


By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco / Harper Collins, $24.95, 238 pages

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