Review

Uncensored: Views & (Re)views

by Joyce Carol Oates



Why would anyone want to do anything as absurd as reviewing a book
of book reviews? Because, unlike the readily available volumes of
fiction by Joyce Carol Oates, it is her book reviews and literary
essays that allow the reader a conversational intimacy with the
author herself. Here, the inner, hungry animal comes out. The
sophomoric question posed to Oates more often than she'd care to
mention --- What is your favorite book? --- is answered, in a
markedly uncomfortable way, in this gripping collection of nearly
40 pieces from the pages of the New York Review of Books,
the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary
Supplement
, The New Yorker, and, of all things, the
Detroit News.

With the essay or book review, you get the real Oates, as she, the
anti-Hemingway herself, readily admits: "…in my nonfiction
prose, it is always my 'own' voice that speaks. Often I'm excited
by what I've read, and I want to talk about it with others…"
So, until a tasty memoir comes along, avid readers of Oates ---
especially writers wishing to know what makes such a prolific
intellectual tick --- are treated to the lyric and objective
observations in this collection. While the book contains essays on
the personally grotesque and the dreadful of such popular and
controversial subjects as Sylvia Plath, Richard Yates, Hemingway,
E.L. Doctorow, William Trevor, Robert Lowell, and Don DeLillo, it
is impossible not to immediately turn to the end of the book for
Oates's powerful contemplation of peace, a relief from the
monstrous and the tortured, "Pilgrimage to Walden Pond: 1962,
2003."

Oates generously shares the moments of revolutionary solitude that
made her realize her own important destiny in letters: "Reading
Henry David Thoreau's WALDEN, that unique and so very American
compendium of wit, common sense, a young man's erudition and
rhapsodic poetry, when I was fifteen years old in a farming
community … was perhaps the most dramatic reading experience
of my life. …In early adolescence we're primed for life
altering experiences, and Henry David Thoreau was mine." She
journeys to this magical place outside Concord, Massachusetts,
years later to find inspiration and to, remarkably, find the woods
and the pond unchanged --- no vicious invasion of Wal-Mart,
McDonald's, or Target, thanks to the tireless efforts of
preservationists. At this literary and philosophical holy place,
Oates writes: "…we are provoked to consider what relationship
we can have with another person, if we haven't the right
relationship with humanity; and what relationship with humanity can
we have if we haven't the right relationship with the world that
contains humanity. These questions deepen with time." From that
peaceful contemplation comes the understanding that just outside
those woods, the fiend of America, of humanity, is waiting, one eye
open to the dawn.

Oates has long been fascinated by the violence of the grotesques in
life and literature, those twisted creatures that are the result of
broken dreams and broken bodies, the leftovers that the ignorant
lusts of life leave after the blind feast of fear, anger, and
despair. Poignant then that Oates opens the collection with the
suicidal Plath and ends with the silent Salinger. It seems there is
no hope from the start in the relationships of artists like Plath
to her husband, poet Ted Hughes, as the lovers tear each other
apart: "…and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and
ripped my hairband [sic] off … And when he kissed my neck I
bit him long and hard on the cheek … blood was running down
his face…"

From this brilliant love scene from THE UNABRIDGED JOURNALS OF
SYLVIA PLATH, Oates transports us to the memoir TRUTH & BEAUTY
by Ann Patchett, in which the author describes her near lesbian,
wholly infantile and repulsive relationship to tortured memoirist
Lucy Grealy. What would seem drunken passion between two college
age roomies --- "In a second she was in my arms, leaping into me,
her arms locked around my neck, her legs wrapped around my
waist…" --- becomes horrifying considering Grealy's
disfiguring face cancer that makes her resemble a dying boy in a
Medieval Bosch.

From physical and mental inversions, Oates propels the collection
to the worst kind of perversion, the betrayal of writing itself by
greed and by censorship when faced with an exposure of love. In
"Private Writings, Public Betrayals," Oates discusses her initial
desire to "protest" Hawthorne's destruction of his wife's
letters.

The event, for Oates, leads to a discussion of the sale of
Salinger's letters, penned to a young lover. It is here, in the
chatty few pages that make up "Private Writings, Public Betrayals"
that Oates reveals herself as the victim of just such a sale by a
hostile opportunist, and where she, when set in such a personal
situation, appears to advocate censorship of such private writings.
And here questions abound. Is it really possible for a well-known
author to have private writings? What is writing, if not something
that begs to be shared, to reveal, to further the understanding of
the writer and the reader, to further the progress of literary
civilization? What if a writer destroyed all they had written ---
could they still be a writer? Or a destroyer?

Confronted with the perceived need for self-censorship, writers
from Hawthorne to Cheever, and from Salinger to Oates, have said
yes and the courts have agreed. The title of this collection, then,
becomes all the more important.

Yet, whether physical or metaphysical, these are gnarly badges of
honor, these people are living, walking, splattering Pollocks in a
mental and physical beauty-obsessed culture --- angry visages
screaming "Boo" in the face of white bread conceit and invasion. In
the rich and riveting context of the Oates-as-critic rhythm, the
heroic American boxer Muhammad Ali remains mythic as does tough man
Hemingway, Fitzgerald fan Richard Yates, and Irish icon James
Joyce, living today through the fiction of William Trevor. Each man
has a sickness that is dear to the heart, hidden behind the myth,
beneath the fishing boat, inside the gin bottle, within the story
of the everyday, while each woman beats the grotesque from her
breast, wears the monster just beneath her face.

Reviewed by Brandon M. Stickney on January 24, 2011

Uncensored: Views & (Re)views
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: March 15, 2005
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0060775564
  • ISBN-13: 9780060775568