Memoirs written by famous writers are viewed by readers as special gifts, invites into the personal lives of novelists and short story writers who provide immense pleasure and insights on world around us through their prose. A memoir by a writer whose career has spanned over fifty years, influenced countless numbers of younger writers, and garnered the attention of millions of readers is an especially savory treat. Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award winner, a five time Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of dozens of other prestigious awards given for contributions to American letters, has granted intimate access to her life in The Lost Landscape.
Joyce writes, “The root of the word memoir is memory. When memory is cast back decades it is likely to be imprecise as a torn net haphazardly cast that may drag in what is irrelevant as well as miss what is crucial.” She offers this statement in the Afterword as if to say the narrative preceding this disclaimer was merely a recollection of her own memories, not absolutely factual in its words. A humble statement indeed, given what occurs before these words. Yet, all memoirs, given the territory, embellish, omit, or account for things as Oates says. Personal memories often transform as we age, remembered differently with emotional growth. The beauty of the memoir hinges on one’s memory, and Joyce Carol Oates has written a moving, poignant account of her life as all memoirs attempt, but very few resonate to the degree of The Lost Landscape.
She disregards the tradition of memoirs written chronologically, often times jumping from adulthood to childhood to before her life began. At first, she introduces us to early life, in the middle of World War II, recollecting her emotions as a child not yet three years old and already aspiring to tell stories. She narrates in first person mostly, but in a charming passage about her time on the farm with an adored chicken, “Happy Chicken,” narrates and sheds light on the little girl’s curiosity and youthful exuberance. Oates details how the work of Lewis Carroll influenced her first to become a real writer at the age of nine. Her bookish grandmother gifted her a toy typewriter before giving her a real one for her fourteenth birthday. She was not a childhood wunderkind, learning to read at age six, but still more interested in coloring books and illustrations than the words themselves. She grew up poor, and her family’s history was not one of notable affluence. And some of the first adult fiction she experienced was Edgar Allan Poe, due to the limited amount of books in her childhood home. Poe’s almost reportage writing style about dark events is not dissimilar to Oates’ narrative here.
For a writer of such high stature, Oates does not hide behind her plethora of accomplishments, and she does provide substantial knowledge into the writing craft like other fiction writers’ memoirs have before her. The most important aspect she relies on is honesty, regardless of how she may be perceived because of it, and this is where The Lost Landscape succeeds.
Her family history, filled with mysterious deaths, crime, and murder is revealed. She candidly talks of the first time she personally dealt with death after her grandfather’s passing, and in a lengthy section, remembers a childhood friend who tragically passed away at the age of eighteen. Death is a constant theme as she later recounts the deaths of her mother and father. Her willingness to open up completely is cemented when she centers her attention on her younger sister, Lynn, who was born with severe mental and physical deficiencies, and at fifteen, was sent for therapeutic treatment, which would become her permanent home. Since then, Joyce claims to have not seen her sister, never once visiting her, only occasionally receiving updates from her brother on her condition. She claims neither her or her Lynn would recognize each other and it would be too painful of an experience. Her personal decision has been broadcast to the world in these pages, but after reading her whole story, it does not come off as cruel, or disheartening, for it aligns with the central themes of loss, whether in terms of physical landscape or distance from a person. It is one person’s account of how we process and deal with inexplicable loss, the trials of becoming an adult, and the many people and places we lose along the way.
She worked in the Syracuse library as an undergraduate where her time was spent reading for the most part, and despite dissuasion from a well like professor, she attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where she met her first husband. These passages discuss the young, struggling writer, whose time was spent reading literary giants instead of writing her own fiction and poetry. She neither agrees or disagrees with writers attending graduate schools, but provides insight into the positives and negatives of both choices. However, Oates provides an anecdote about her career trajectory when she accounts throwing away a one-hundred page seminar paper on Herman Melville as her thesis before hearing the verdict from faculty. She was awarded a Masters degree in English but denied acceptance into the Ph.D. program, ending her academic career to pave the way for her fiction writing.
Oates, a modern literary legend, is incredibly human in these pages. She does not claim superior intelligence, nor does she give off any profound advice for others. It is inspiring because it is none of those things, and yet, provides all of them if read closely. From her literary influences to her initial attempts at writing seriously, it is a quality reference for aspiring writers, but more importantly, it is a revealing portrait of love and loss. A handbook of the ambiguity and complexities of love, and a heartbreaking, sweeping guide to sustaining after personal loss. She has suffered from insomnia, spending late nights walking outdoors, and despite its debilitating nature, her descriptions of landscapes are hauntingly gorgeous as shown here and in her fiction. After the last page, it is clear how her life and her family’s history has influenced her fiction, and it provides new reasons to revisit her work, and also an introduction for new readers.
Joyce Carol Oates has written the most intriguing memoir in recent memory. A raw, disruptive, and captivating piece of writing which shakes the foundations of traditional memoir writing by eliminating all of the sensational tropes frequenting the genre. She has compiled extensive snapshots of her memory, capturing them inside a visceral, disjointed, and alluring narrative. Rarely does a memoir appeal to multiple generations of people and a country as a whole, but Joyce Carol Oates has accomplished a miraculous feat. The Lost Landscape is required reading.
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