For the past three weeks, I’ve been looking at Joyce Carol Oates’s Gothic Quintet, in preparation for the publication of the fifth book in the sequence, The Accursed, set for next March. I started off with 1980’s Bellefleur, which I thought was brilliant. Then I looked at 1982’s A Bloodsmoor Romance, which I found interesting, but not up to the first book’s level, perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with the romance genre. Last week, I considered Mysteries of Winterthurn, from 1984, which impressed me quite a bit. Now, this week, I look at 1998’s My Heart Laid Bare.
It may be worth noting that while My Heart Laid Bare was published in 1998, it was written in 1984. Similarly, The Accursed, under its original title The Crosswicks Horror, was first completed in 1981. Both books were revised in the years since, and I wonder if that might help account for the fact that My Heart Laid Bare has a rather different feel than the other ‘Gothic’ books. Nothing evidently supernatural happens in it. It’s only nominally Gothic in atmosphere, and the narration’s relatively straightforward — it’s told in omniscient third-person, unlike Bloodsmoor or Winterthurn, and is stylistically more restrained than Bellefleur (which admittedly is not saying much). Still, it’s a wild, wide-ranging look at American life in the early part of the twentieth century, incorporating several self-consciously melodramatic touches. It fits in with its predecessors nicely, and overall serves to round off Oates’s Gothic sequence as we’ve had it so far.
The book follows grizzled con-man Abraham Licht and his sons and daughters, from 1909 through to the Great Depression. A prologue suggests that they’re the descendants of a scheming eighteenth-century servingwoman who impersonated her mistress, was caught and sent to America; at any event, the novel shows us the Lichts consistently changing identities, some of which are false and some of which become true. Besides Abraham, we have his three biological sons, his older boys Thurston and Harwood and his younger Darian; his two daughters, Millie and Esther; and his black adopted son, Elisha. Over the course of the book, the children leave and betray and (occasionally) return to Abraham, as Abraham himself plots for money, for power, and, perhaps most importantly to him, for another marriage.
As Licht schemes and swindles his way through his life, he imagines his story as an autobiography to be called My Heart Laid Bare. Less is done with this doubleness than one might have thought; the phrase is from Poe, who said a book that fulfilled the promise of that title would “revolutionize” the world — but that it could not be done, for “the paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.” Licht’s experience ends by equivocally supporting the quote, but what we quickly come to realise is that Licht, the consummate con-artist, is not the man to write such a book. Not only is his whole life based on setting out illusions to other people, on concealing to others whatever the essence of his identity might be, he has also hidden it from himself. One imagines that Oates the postmodernist is skeptical of Poe’s statement, and this may be her point: one cannot consciously lay bare the heart, for in what does the heart consist? What is one’s true identity? Is it something the world sets out for you, or something you choose for yourself; if the latter, who then are you that does the choosing?
The Licht clan is based in Muirkirk, a New York town, but the story ranges across much of the United States, following the Lichts’ various cons. At different times, these include a faked pregnancy, a fixed horse-race, a false medical clinic with snake-oil cures, the impersonation of a missing high-society heir, the seduction of a rich widow, the creation of a society claiming an inheritance in the name of a false descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte, and many others. But Oates, as elsewhere in these ostensibly genre books, avoids making the planning and execution of the schemes the point. This isn’t The Sting or The Lies of Locke Lamora. The blurring of identity, the rebirths and name-changes, the whirl of deception as the years pass by and history marches on, all have to do with the book’s main theme: identity.
For Abraham, his way of life is The Game. He’s developed a kind of catechism expounding his faith, and naturally brought up his children to follow his belief. It rejects conventional morality, and insists on a kind of amoral pseudo-libertarianism:
Crime? Then complicity.
Complicity? Then no crime.
No crime? Then no criminal.
No criminal? Then no remorse.
All men are our enemies, as they are strangers.
Brothers and sisters by blood are brothers and sisters by the soul.
Do you doubt, children? You must never doubt!
To doubt is already to lose The Game.
Covet where you wish, but never in vain.
Would this earthly globe were but the size of an apple, that it might be plucked, devoured!
(By one who has the courage to pluck, and to bite hard.)
For Abraham, family matters; but he trusts no community beyond that. His tragedy is that his children turn against him (even if some ultimately turn again back to him), finding identities for themselves, and then fixing those identities, something anathema to Abraham. His youngest son, Darian, in fact chooses an identity — brilliant composer and musician — actively opposed to what Abraham intended for him. If anyone creates a work of art that is the heart laid bare, it’s Darian; but Abraham has no use for his son’s triumph.
It is possible that we’re meant to look at Darian’s career equivocally; it’s hard to tell, in prose, how seriously to take descriptions of a fictional composer’s brilliance, especially when the work of prose is highly ironic. But it does seem to me that Oates intends for Darian to be understood as another American genius, like Winterthurn’s Xavier Kilgarvan or (more equivocally) Bloodsmoor’s John Quincy Zinn. Darian creates music telling the story of an American community, a vanished town that occupied the land where Muirkirk now stands; he therefore rejects Abraham’s dog-eat-dog sense of the world and insistence on individuality in favour of a recognition of the ties between people. Fairy tales told him by Katrina, Abraham’s old housekeeper (and perhaps his mother), later recur in Darian’s music: his life becomes his art.
Like most of the Lichts, Darian is somewhat larger-than-life. But in saying that I don’t mean to imply that he possesses a demonic personality, or great charisma; rather the reverse, in fact, especially relative to the rest of his family. What I mean is that he seems flatter than the world around him, more of an archetype — the tormented musical genius — hence somehow purer or more of an ideal than the non-Licht characters. He, and the rest of the Lichts, are more realistically drawn than the main characters of the previous Gothics, yet still seem almost overlarge for the world around them, even if they have no greater inherent power than other characters — only, perhaps, are more conscious of the need to forge one’s own identity and nature for oneself, in the face of society’s attempts to force one down into a specific role. They are to that extent on a larger scale: by just so much, they are genre characters, and choosing to be genre characters, to make themselves rather than accept being made by others.
Still, even if that’s so, the book is only debateably a genre book, much less a Gothic novel. There are melodramatic coincidences in the construction of the plot, true, but not as many as one would find in a true melodrama. Notably, the plot doesn’t rise to a true climax, instead quietly fading out in a more ‘realistic’ mode. It’s a gradual awakening into the present, perhaps; in any event, it fits the style of the book, for the narration, though still heavily stylised by most standards, isn’t quite as pyrotechnic as the previous books in the Gothic sequence. There are no games played with the identity of the narrator, though storytellers are central to the tale (in one form or another, all the Lichts are storytellers). Abraham’s imagined autobiography remains no more than a potential shadow for the actual novel, though one wonders if the voluminous letters his daughter Esther writes might have been the true revelation Abraham never realised.
Abraham never grasps the irony of the master confidence-man promising to lay bare his heart. Perhaps as a result, there’s something ultimately unknowable about him. He seems to accrue symbols; his name, and struggles with his sons, seem to look back to Abraham the biblical patriarch. But an old man who wanders the world in disguise, accompanied by his adopted son, recalls other myths; especially given his penchant for whistling Wagner, and his playing with his sons while wearing an eye-patch. The Wagnerian echo seems relevant: there’s a kind of incest here, as in the Ring cycle, and like those operas the whole thing ends in fire. Wagner’s Odin obsessed over the ring, over wealth and power, which was bound up in forswearing love. Abraham wants all these things, but the wants come in conflict. I felt much of the drama of the book came from seeing him surprise himself as, at different times and in different circumstances, he chose one of these things over another.
Still, though subtle touches and symbolic echoes abound in the book, it feels less dense in metaphors than its predecessors. That may mean that Oates has worked her metaphors more thoroughly into the matter of her story. But I do think that there is overall less structural daring evident in this book. The intricate cross-references of Bellefleur are not apparent, nor the challenging equivocal mysteries of Winterthurn. Even Bloodsmoor seemed more content to imply connections between plot points than My Heart Laid Bare. While some of the strands of the story overlap in their chronology, and an extensive use of flashbacks and flashforwards to add depth and foreshadowing, the exultant sense of a novel finding its own unique form is absent for the first time in the Gothic sequence.
Which is not to say it’s a bad or thoughtless book. The theme of identity is developed strongly, wedded here with the ongoing themes of the Oates Gothics, especially an interrogation of the nature of America. Abraham’s family of con-artists is consistently compared, sometimes explicitly, with the financial élite of the country; in some ways, this book is more timely now than when it was written or published (one thinks, too, of a gentle, despairing passage early in the book when Elisha and Abraham chuckle at the idea of a black man as President). Oates’s critique of wealth and of the concentration of power in American life has not, in these books, been as pointed or precise as it is here. If the novel is more explicitly of this world than the other Gothics, that has a number of ramifications — starting with a closer union of its characters to the matter of history, World Wars and Depressions and all.
Once again, gender underlies much of the action, and particularly the aspirations of the main characters. But the focus here is a little different. The Licht women are able to shift identity, to make their own way, even if Abraham disapproves. Women in Bloodsmoor and Winterthurn made lives that they chose, but often had to be part-chameleon to do so, hiding their successes. Here, Licht’s daughters, perhaps particularly Esther, have more potential, and construct an identity in a somewhat freer (though still clearly highly gendered) world.
Moreover, it seems to me that this book actually brings out clearly something implicit in the other Gothics’ consideration of gender: the socially-defined nature of masculinity. Males in the books are expected, by their families, their communities, and often by the narrators, to be strong, heterosexual, and typically in command. Evidence of an interest in art, or any sign of emotional empathy, is considered weak and ‘unmanly.’ Oates dramatises this particularly effectively in this book — she shows how this prejudice, like other prejudices, forces men into specific roles and limits their possible identities. And she shows how this becomes internalised, how some will become weak because they see themselves as such, while others will search desperately for whatever it means for them to be strong. Abraham longs for love, for the incarnation of Venus Aphrodite, whom he sees in a number of women, but it’s an open question whether he really seeks ‘love’ or simply the chance to sire more children, to maintain his position as the grifter patriarch of the Lichts. To remain, literally, potent.
Along with gender, the issue of race comes out more in this book, as well, than in the previous Gothics. For the first time one of the main characters, Elisha, is black. That’s important, to lay bare the heart means to remove the skin. So is that interior essence shaped by gender and race? The answer seems to be: insofar as society forces it to be. Elisha begins the book imagining himself to be an exception, imagining that he’s evaded society’s rules and prejudices because of his ability to disguise himself, his participation in Abraham’s schemes. An event midway through the book changes him; he ends up a Marcus Garvey-esque black nationalist — though at times, in certain ways, it’s unclear even to him how much he’s playing Abraham’s Game, how much he’s deceiving himself and others about who he is and what he believes.
The book seems to me to be about the conflict between society’s insistence on making choices for the individual about their identity, and the individual’s freedom to choose identities for oneself. The shifting identities of the Lichts are profoundly threatening to established society. But society’s determination to make people’s lives fit into specific shapes is yet more threatening. Ultimately, the book seems to argue for reinvention as an American trait: people came to America to remake themselves, and so still today America has a heritage based in that freedom of identity — even as power structures have emerged, or were implicit from the beginning, which seek to limit that freedom. But those structures are not all-powerful, the book tells us. Even physical reality is not absolute. Throughout the book, characters die and are reborn in various forms; even the body (subject to disguises) is not the final arbiter of identity.
So the book is about America, like the previous Gothics. One can see other images and echoes from the other three books: Abraham’s Muirkirk, a deconsecrated church, is an edifice in the line of previous Manors — Glen Mawr, Bellefleur, Bloodsmoor. Mud is an image of the physical world, pulling one back to sad reality. Animals and birds becomes invested with symbolic charges, like heraldic figures. Characters wonder about, or try to replace, God. There is violence and a strong sense of irony.
But while certain themes are present to greater or lesser degrees in each book, each book also focuses on one theme above all. So much as Bellefleur was perhaps primarily about class and Bloodsmoor gender and Winterthurn God, My Heart Laid Bare is about America. It’s about the making of modern America. It is closest to the history of the first half of the twentieth century, with Presidents as minor characters. And it argues for the specificity of the American experience.
It’s that last part that I found perhaps more equivocal than the book intends. My Heart Laid Bare, like most of the other Gothics, presents itself as an inherently American story. Yet I’m not convinced. It seems to me that the qualities the book sees as American are universal; that the story, in its essence, could take place in a number of other countries — changed in details, yes, but still remaining recognisably the same. In a sense, that’s a problem for a book that wants to be distinctively American. On the other hand, it also suggests that Oates has found matter that gets at the essence of what it is to be human, in this book’s fascination with identity and the sequence’s overall concern with power.
Is Darian Licht, the putative artist of genius, not distinctively American? I didn’t particularly think so. I found it difficult to take seriously the descriptions of his art; it seemed almost generic, a sterotyped ideal of American art — modernist, breaking away from European ideals, yet also populist, coming from and for the people as a whole (admittedly, this could be a description of some of the best genre work and so perhaps thematically fitting). It felt like propaganda for an image of what American art could be, divorced from the more varied and lively reality of artistic accomplishment in the United States and elsewhere. It’s a symptom, I think, of a general weakness in the book. At its worst, My Heart Laid Bare has a tendency to simplicity, notable in contrast to the previous Gothics; the dreamlike polyvalency of the earlier books here seems dropped, so that things are too easily and obviously read as other things. Modernism as American art. Con men as financiers.
Still, the book’s a solid and definitive conclusion to the Gothic sequence. It’s an awakening from the dream-past of the other books, themselves so dreamlike. The fantasy matter has thinned out to effective non-existence as the Gothic dissolves into history, itself recontextualised and reimagined, revived for Oates’s literary purposes. Read as part of the sequence of Gothics, My Heart Laid Bare is stronger than it would be in isolation, I think, identifiable as the development and conclusion of a series of thematic concerns.
How does the sequence hold up overall? Quite well, if not excellently. The writing is uniformly strong. The books vary from one to another, developing their ideas in non-linear but effective ways, allowing themes to emerge and recede in an almost symphonic way. Oates’s storytelling is effective but elliptical: much is recalled in retrospect. Foreshadowing is heavy. Dramatic moments are sometimes muted by irony, dialogue reduced to summary. But all these things are typically done for specific structural purposes, allowing other sequences to emerge as crucial.
If the fusion of genre and ‘literary’ writing has become a major theme recently in the world of so-called ‘literary’ fiction — one thinks of Chabon and Lethem and all the usual suspects — then these books are interesting early examples of that trend. So early, in fact, that there is perhaps a consciousness of the separateness of ‘genre’ that may not be as strong today. And it’s arguable that their characterisation as ‘Gothic’ is misapplied; Bellefleur is certainly Gothic, but the other books only nod in that direction (Winterthurn rather more than the others). Perhaps the term, or the idea of genre itself, was liberating. There’s an incredible freewheeling sense to all these books, the sense of a writer determined to handle great themes and fit the whole world into her writing.
My Heart Laid Bare ends the sequence on a fairly straightforward note. Ironically, a book about characters finding various forms for their identities is itself relatively conventional in form. But that ‘relatively’ is significant. It’s still a highly ambitious work. And while it may be less exuberant, it also may be read as less alienated by the idea of ‘genre.’ That is, ‘genre’ here is not foreign or unusual. Melodramatic or Gothic touches fuse with the idea of the ‘literary’ novel, accepted as simply further tools for the writer to use. It’s a conclusion, not a summing-up or a valediction. And it leaves one intensely curious about The Accursed, ostensibly the middle book in the sequence but published out of order as the fifth, and how it will fit into this powerful set of stories.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.