Joyce Carol Oates Is at Her Best With ‘Soul at White Heat’

Oates' prose has achieved a level of polish most writers can only wish for.

Soul at White Heat, subtitled Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life, is yet another collection of Joyce Carol Oates’ essays and occasional pieces. All of the articles here have appeared elsewhere, primarily in The New York Review of Books. This is no deterrent, for Soul at White Heat offers a rare look at a sophisticated writer as she cultivates her thinking on fellow authors, the art of writing, and the world at large.

Oates is now nearing 80 years of age. (Does this strike fear in your heart? It does mine.) Sooner or later, every article about Oates asks how she manages a ceaseless flow of stories, essays, commentary, and asides, not to mention her voluminous twitter feed. So, how does she do it?

The answer is simple: She writes. All the time. When Oates isn’t writing, she’s reading. Additionally, she still maintains an avid running schedule. The articles in Soul at White Heat reflect this. Oates’ prose has achieved a level of polish most writers can only wish for. There are no weak essays in Soul at White Heat; those discussed here reflect personal preference and space limitations.

Soul at White Heat is organized into four parts: “The Writing Life”, “Classics”, “Contemporaries”, and “Real Life”. “The Writing Life”‘s four essays, while entertaining, will disappoint anyone hoping to discover the secrets of Oates’ prodigious output. “Real Life” closes the book with a single essay, the deeply discomfiting “A Visit to San Quentin”.

It’s the middle portion of Soul at White Heat, “Classics and Contemporaries”, that allows readers to luxuriate in Oates at her elegantly thoughtful best. Comprised of seven book reviews, “Classics and Contemporaries” displays the remarkable range of Oates’s reading — not only breadth, but depth. In discussing Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, Oates casually reveals she’s read four additional Dickens biographies, including Michael Allen’s scholarly Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory, a work she describes “very likely impenetrable” due to “historical minutiae”. One suspects Oates is being charitable. Yet her description of Dickens’ life, and of Tomalin’s rendering of said life, is utterly engrossing:

Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art. Claire Tomalin’s biography is likely to be one of the definitive Dickens biographies in its seamless application of “the life” to “the art” — and what a perilous balancing act it is, in which, just barely, Dickens’s art isn’t lost amid a smothering welter of facts.

Oates is a generous reader, capable of uncovering sympathetic detail in the most unpleasant individuals. Consider “The King of Weird: H.P.Lovecraft”: Howard Phillips’ Lovecraft was fatherless by age seven. Lovecraft’s father was mentally ill due to untreated syphilis, which eventually killed him. Lovecraft’s mother also suffered from mental illness, insisting her son wear his deceased father’s clothing.

The adult Lovecraft — anti-Semitic, racist, and asexual — earned a scant living writing. He took pride in a subsistence diet of canned food. When he fell ill with cancer, a lifelong fear of doctors stopped his seeking medical care. Lovecraft died at 46. His fame was posthumous.

Talent aside, Lovecraft was a repulsive individual. Yet when Oates writes, “Like Poe, Lovecraft died believing himself an ignominious failure”, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this man, who died a terrible death, alone, was also pitiful.

The standout essay in this section is “A Visit to Doris Lessing”. In 1971, Oates and her first husband, Ray Smith, took a year’s sabbatical in London. There Oates met many of Britain’s top writers, including Lessing.

Shortly before meeting Lessing, Oates had struggled with depression, insomnia, and anorexia — then a poorly understood malady. One afternoon, alone in her London apartment, Oates had a mystical experience characterized by “absolute loss of ‘ego'”. Oates had difficulty describing what happened afterward, for it “lay beyond the scope of language”. The experience lasted some minutes, with Oates returning to regular consciousness completely recovered.

Even today, when “other” states of consciousness are somewhat more accepted, such experiences remain outside the “norm”. In 1972, Oates feared discussing her experience widely. She found a sympathetic audience in Lessing, who had recently published Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, a book taking the then-radical position that unclassifiable” mental states and/or experiences aren’t necessarily incompatible with “sanity”.*

The “Contemporaries” section examines writers from J.M. Coetzee to Anne Tyler to Larry McMurtry; the unifying thread is Oates’s relentless curiosity. Nor would any collection of Oates nonfiction be complete without a discussion of boxing. Here, Oates reviews David O. Russell’s film The Fighter (2010), offers an appreciation of Muhammed Ali, and takes a thoughtful look at Mike Tyson.

In 2008, Oates’s husband of 47 years died suddenly. Her widowhood makes her uniquely and unfortunately qualified to weigh in on Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, a book Oates terms a “fabulation” — it isn’t quite a memoir — that eventually addresses the equally sudden, horrific death of Barnes’ wife, Pat Kavanagh, who lived 37 days after diagnosis with a brain tumor. Barnes and Kavanagh were married 30 years: Barnes, overcome with grief, has yet to recover. Yet Levels of Life begins with a history of hot air ballooning. The book’s second section is a journal of sorts, but “not so much the events of a life as of its interior contours.”

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The reader can only wince as Oates reiterates the shockingly insensitive, well-meaning suggestions and remarks Barnes fields in the wake of Kavanagh’s death: get a dog, go on holiday, are you feeling better now? Then there are those who go to great, even comic, lengths to avoid speaking the deceased’s name, as if death were infectious. Coming from Oates, the irony is doubled. Yet nobody is better positioned to ask: “The question is then, for the survivor, how to live?” It’s a good question to be asking right about now.

Oates is as interested in younger writers as she is in long-established voices. The relatively recent emergence of Karen Joy Fowler is a case in point. With “Emotions of Man and Animals: Karen Joy Fowler”, Oates leads readers into the poignant world of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Here, an egotistical professor brings an infant chimpanzee home, intent on raising it alongside his infant daughter. The outcome, predictably, is disastrous. Oates, recently retired from teaching literature at Princeton University, brings her familiarity with academia, in all its petty grievances, to bear on Fowler’s work.

Much like Joan Accocella, longtime critic at the New Yorker, Oates is skilled at writing well of a work even when less than laudatory. Her review of Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? carefully lays out Winterson’s many reasons for misery: she is adopted into a the home of a religious, loveless woman. Any reading apart from the Bible is verboten. Her admissions of lesbianism is met with horror. She is subject to a forced — failed — exorcism, and forced to leave home.

Yet Winterson becomes a successful writer, reconnecting with her birth mother, a woman accepting of lesbianism and supportive of her writing career. When Winterson’s adoptive mother dies, her memoir founders: “the intransigent and fundamentally unknowable soul of the text has vanished.” The remainder of the book devolves into weak self-help wisdom, for the engine powering Winterson’s rage is no more.

The final essay in Soul at White Heat, placed there intentionally or not, is “A Visit to San Quentin”. Oates visited in April 2011; it’s her second visit to a maximum security prison. That the experience isn’t novel does nothing to lessen her horror, or ours. Visitors cannot wear blue. They cannot wear sandals. They must cover their arms and dress discreetly. That Oates is older on this second visit makes her, bluntly, less subject to the possibility of the “most primitive and pitiless violence” as a woman. Nevertheless, the wardens warn everyone to avoid eye contact with the prisoners. Nor should anyone venture too near the cells, lest they be grabbed.

The group is then walked along a cell “gauntlet” before being shown the execution chamber, which is painted blue. The particulars of the trip, in all their claustrophobic detail, are portrayed so convincingly that when Oates emerges to the chill, fresh air blowing off the glittering San Francisco Bay, I could feel it myself: the San Francisco Bay in April, cold, salt air and wind. The Bay Bridge, arcing overhead into the mist. Most of all, the palpable relief of departure.

*For more about Oates’s London sabbatical, her mystical experience, and her meeting with Lessing, see Greg Johnson’s Invisible Writer.

RATING 9 / 10