The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming Of Age

Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: HarperCollins, nonfiction

At the moment of the writing of this review towards the end of last year, Joyce Carol Oates has fallen into controversy. On Twitter Oates began asking a question: “All we hear of Isis is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?”

The ensuing response – both in outrage at and defence of Oates – shows the place in which she resides within the world of American letters.

Her readers revere her incredible prolific career (she has written more than 100 books), her relatable writing, and her intellect.

A multiple recipient of the American National Book Award and identifying as liberal but concerned about the “moral character” of politicians, Oates seems to be an intellectual powerhouse from a grander era, before the current immense division between the American Right and Left, and is relevant to both.

This has some effect in the kind of book that The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming Of Age is supposed to be.

In some ways, it is a very accessible book to Malaysians. The language and subject matter is not difficult. Nevertheless, it may not resonate with a Malaysian reader as it would with an American.

The Lost Landscape is a memoir of Oates’s childhood growing up in rural New York State during the years of America’s Golden Age – post-World War II America up until the 1970s – with a population thriving on the economic prosperity of an industrial nation. The title itself evokes the sentimentality that many Americans would have about this era; a time often looked upon nostalgically due to its seeming moral and cultural stability.

Yet this is not quite the same landscape that appears in the conventionally rose-tinted, sometimes mawkish evocations of the era. Oates, as her recent controversy shows, is intellectually curious and sceptical, and any sentiment that she may have for this era is tinged with darkness.

str2_catalinalostR_ma_coverOates shares the joys of growing up in a rural environment with frankness, recalling a time of simpler virtues and simpler joys, but she does not hide the fact that it was also an era of prevalent sexism, lack of knowledge in handling sexual abuse and domestic violence, problematic constructions of masculinity, and lack of compassion or wisdom in handling the mentally disabled.

The opening chapter on Oates’s memory of her childhood pet, Happy Chicken, is the perfect example of this. Her love for the chicken is marred by a dark – if somewhat comedic – possibility that the same chicken that she nurtured as a pet had been slaughtered and consumed for dinner.

While the memoir can be seen as a celebration of this era, it also deconstructs it and reminds the reader that while it can be beautiful, it was far from rosy. Can a Malaysian reader share the same response to The Lost Landscape as an American reader would? It is not likely.

Oates mentions in the afterword that the memories included in this memoir were selected as a conscious act of storytelling. Unfortunately, without sentimentality for America’s Golden Age, the chosen memories feel disparate. Even the book’s subtitle – “A Writer’s Coming Of Age” – does not really inform us about the point of assembling these memories.

Towards the end of the book Oates dedicates a chapter to memories of her mother’s quilts, which she describes as not “labyrinthe” but treasured all the same. That actually is the best way I can think of to also describe The Lost Landscape. Neither complex nor extravagant, Oates’s memories are like a quilt of many pieces sewn together without a designated central point. The result is something warm and intricate, but rather dull.

The blurb on the back of the book implies that The Lost Landscape may be accessible to readers new to Oates’ work as well as appeal to established readers. This is not entirely true.

A reader who is familiar with her prior work will be grateful to gain some insight into the makings of the mind of an admired writer.

Here are the seedlings of her thoughts on sexual abuse, intimate violence, religion, masculinity and literature, presented in a way that is more accessible than some of her previous works, including her published journals.

A reader new to Oates, however, will probably just find the experience dull.

For a seasoned Oates reader, though, this memoir will be a treasure trove: an invitation to a warm and intimate exposure of a writer’s personal life, like looking at a friend’s old family photographs and ending with insightful conversation with that friend. One is won over by the warmth, and one leaves with a sense of time spent well and with substance.

For readers new to Oates, this memoir may not be the best of her works to start with. It is much better to begin with any of her more recent and acclaimed novels.

If one must start with one of her nonfictional works, consider reading her other memoir on coping with widowhood, A Widow’s Story, instead.