When Joyce Carol Oates, the 77-year-old author of well over 100 books, told the New Yorker last year that she thought of herself as “transparent”, before adding “I’m not sure I really have a personality”, the admission felt scandalous. We live in a time when the concept of personhood has been enshrined, in the monetising parlance of late capitalism, as “my personal brand”. To posit its non-existence is a kind of taboo. Especially if you happen to be someone often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters”.
Oates, a five-time Pulitzer finalist, might be “very intensely interested in a portrait of America”, but clearly she has no truck with the ego-vaunting, personality driven paradigm of contemporary celebrity. She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced gothic streak colouring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who frequently experience sexual shame. In the afterword to her 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, she seems to find a human truth within horror: “We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”
At her home in rural New Jersey she serves mugs of herbal tea and when her bengal kitten, Cleopatra, settles against my leg, Oates says: “I see you have quite a conquest there. She assumes you’re here to meet her.”
I am here, of course, to talk to Oates about herself and her work, but “I’m not so interested in myself … ” she says. “I remember somebody saying that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton loved to go bar-hopping in New York, and the last thing they wanted to talk about was themselves – they were more interested in these characters in the bars. That’s the way I think many writers are. I feel that way. And it’s often said about Shakespeare that he was transparent, and Keats that he had this negative capability to be interested in other things.”
Specifically, I’m here to speak to her about her new novel The Man Without a Shadow, her 44th under her own name to go alongside her many collections of stories, essays and plays, her memoirs and her novels written under pseudonyms. It concerns the relationship between an amnesiac, Elihu Hoopes, and a neuroscientist, Margot Sharpe, for whom Hoopes is both enduring scientific subject and lifelong love object. She is a woman who “can’t bear herself except as a vessel of work”. She is also a person who wonders, “What if I have no ‘person’ – what will I do then?”
“The relationship between them is always sort of unreal,” she says, “but I’m wondering if many relationships that are based on love and romance are not pretty highly charged with unreality. When you’re actually living with someone over a period of time you do get to know the person in a very complex and detailed way. But the romantic ideal is very much fraught with the possibility of conditioning people. Presenting your best self. Saying things to the other that will elicit a certain response.”
Oates was married for 47 years to Raymond J Smith, a professor and editor of the Ontario Review, which he and Oates founded together in 1974. After he died in 2008 from complications arising from pneumonia, Oates detailed her grief in an acclaimed memoir, A Widow’s Story. Soon after, she met and married Charlie Gross, a neuroscientist. Gross has been a particularly enthusiastic reader of the latest novel, which has come about, she says, directly as a consequence of writing A Widow’s Story and having to deal so rigorously with her own memory. Oates usually works on several projects at once, but it was only after she’d finished the memoir that she was able to return to writing novels and stories. “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important,” she explains.
Oates is straightforward about the personal parallels. “I very much identify with Margot.” And not just for her workaholic tendencies and personality doubt. “I think,” she ventures, “we’re continually inventing narratives and filling in blanks and misremembering in ways that bolster our interpretation of something. So I wanted to write about this relationship between two people engaged in different memories.”
Since his memory extends no further than 70 seconds, Elihu experiences every meeting with Margot as a first. Accordingly, the novel is written entirely in the present tense, the state in which Elihu lives. In one sense then, their love is literally without foundation: how can you form any meaningful connection in a little over a minute? Yet there’s also something pure about their relationship: each encounter has the wonder of the eternally new.
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