A week and a half ago I went to hear Joyce Carol Oates speak about her new memoir, The Lost Landscape. The Harvard Bookstore hosted the event in the church right next to the T-station, across from Johnson Gate.
One of the reasons Oates chose to write this memoir is the sensation she has of memories and lost memories of childhood that she wants to investigate. According to Oates, many of our most important memories are cinematic in their appearance; we watch them as if on a screen. These are the memories she records in the memoir, although she also noted (with reference to Our Town, one of my favorite plays) that most of life is composed of utterly mundane occurrences which are quickly forgotten.
It’s customary to do a reading at these presentations, and Oates read the two line prose poem that starts the memoir, along with a chapter about her early “pre-literate” childhood, called “Happy Chicken.” One of the interesting twists Oates gave to this chapter is that it is narrated by the chicken! I suppose this is a clever away of getting around the difficulty of writing about a time when few of us have any solid memories. The chicken, named Happy Chicken, is an astute narrator. She (although called a boy, the hen is actually female) comments on young Joyce’s affection for her pet, the relationships between Joyce’s mother and grandparents, and paints a general picture of life on an upstate New York farm.
At the same time, the darkness the characterizes Oates’ fiction is always there at the edges. There is mention of the dangers of the outside world: foxes, dogs, and the like. The rooster, ruler of the coop, is described as a creature which enjoys terrifying and attacking the young girl. The tensions and dark family history behind Joyce’s childhood on the farm are also briefly touched upon. All of this is described in a softly lyrical tone, though, and as Oates’ read I found myself paying almost as much attention to her inflection as to her words. She read in a way that was almost poetic.
As you might infer from the title of the post, Happy Chicken is eventually eaten by her owner; an unfortunate victim of a grandmother who is unable to tell the difference between Happy Chicken and all the other hens. At this point, the word Happy takes on a revolting significance, and Oates muses on the ugliness of the word “happy,” obsessively repeating it. Although Oates paints a nightmarish scene of her younger, unknowing self wondering where her pet has gone, she closes off the chapter with a magical section in which Happy Chicken speaks directly to the young Joyce. Like a parent explaining that a puppy has run off to the farm, Happy Chicken tells Joyce that one day, her wings found the strength to lift her off the ground, and took her far away from the farm.
After she finished reading the chapter, there were a few questions from the audience. No one had any particularly special questions; they were all what you might expect: Why is your writing so dark? I’m such a big fan, what advice do you have for writers? However, Oates always had something interesting to say in response. In response to a question about her favorite works, she commented that she sees art as an act of imitation; we create art that is inspired by the art we personally find significant and moving. She mentioned Alice in Wonderland as the book that first meant something to her. She also expounded more on why she wrote the memoir, saying that she thinks her family secrets, and in some ways all family secrets, are representative of a universal experience. This stood out to me because it seemed she was implying that art, in addition to being personally significant, ought to mean something to those we share it with.
The night ended with a book signing. I had purchased a copy of her memoir earlier in the day, and stood close to the back of the line. It was a mechanical process; the person in front would step up, Joyce Carol Oates, would sign the book, exchange a few words, and then the next person would go. Due to her enormous influence on literature, there were many more people in line, and I was there for a good half hour after the event ended. When I finally went up to get the book signed, she asked me if I was getting it signed for a friend (Yes), and then said that it was nice to meet me. I thanked her, and walked out the door. She seemed much older from that perspective than from my seat in the pews of the church, and I was reminded of how long she’s been writing.
Thanks for waiting a few extra days for this post! Here are some clouds for your patience: