Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wild Nights!

Wild Nights! : stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway / Joyce Carol Oates
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2008.

This is a book I received from HarperCollins last fall; but I got distracted and have just now read it. It's a collection of five stories, previously published, each focusing on one iconic American writer. Because it is Joyce Carol Oates writing, each story is structurally balanced. The stories are also interesting by virtue of their style; she uses the style of each writer while writing about them. Poe and Hemingway come across most strongly, and it reveals her ability to use both style and substance to reflect her ideas.

The two stories I found most successful, or personally interesting anyhow, were the two using Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe as their starting points. Each used the character of the writer but altered it so that we weren't dealing with the reality of each individual. The three other stories, based on Henry James, Samuel Clemens and Ernest Hemingway, proposed to reveal to us the interior lives of these authors' last days. There is a standard disclaimer on the copyright page -- "Wild Nights! is a work of fiction. The characterizations and incidents presented are totally the product of the author's imagination and have no basis in the real lives of the authors depicted." In addition, she does state at the end of the book what led her to create each story; suggestions from unfinished manuscripts, authors' letters, biographies etc.

Nevertheless, I still feel uncomfortable with the idea of using real people as the main character in an introspective piece of fiction. I've always found it a bit questionable. I have a distaste for putting words, or worse, thoughts, in an actual person's voice. It seems to me like an ontological violation, and I vastly preferred the stories here which did not depend on that trope.

All five stories are rather dark, describing dysfunction and distress. I'll look more closely at my favourite of the five, "EDickinsonRepliLuxe". In this futuristic tale, a lonely couple, the Krims, decide to purchase a RepliLux of Emily Dickinson; this is a clone of sorts. They imagine it will be a comfort, another being in the house and so on. Yet she turns out to be a shy, neurotic figure gliding about the house silently. At this point I was thinking: they were surprised by this why? It is a clone of a famous recluse after all. But Oates makes this silent figure a powerful one; her perceptions and thoughts become of paramount importance to the wife, who is driven to figure out what Emily is thinking, to become close friends and to share that interior life which in its withholding is powerful. The husband, on the other hand, takes a more traditional approach to asserting his power over the Emily; he enters her room and tries to force himself on her. Finding that the clone is not anatomically correct he does not technically succeed, but the attempt destroys the sympathy between the household members and Mrs. Krim disappears with the Emily. Although the emphasis on Emily being the possession of Mr. Krim is a little heavy handed in this scene, the story is still elegantly told. It's a sad, brief tale looking at loneliness, at powerless vs. powerful, and what being human means. Intriguing.

Listen to Joyce Carol Oates discuss this book on NPR.
Read an excerpt on her website.

Blog reviews at:
In Laurie's Mind
The Library Ladder


  1. Wow, what an interesting review. I'm not sure how I feel about fiction about a real character. I just got a mystery novel that uses Oscar Wilde as it's lead character, so I'll keep your post in mind while I'm reading that one. We'll see how it turns out!

  2. Sounds interesting. I usually enjoy Oates, and I haven't heard of this one. Great review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  3. I think I would have to read this myself before making a judgment on her use of real people in her fiction.

    Thanks for a well thought out review.

  4. Interesting. I'm not sure I'd like an author guessing about a historical person's interior life either -- I mean, I don't mind people mixing fact and fiction, but I worry about getting a false image of the writer stuck in my head.

  5. This sounds like a fascinating exercise for Oates, particularly the attempt to use each writer's style while writing about them, but perhaps not quite so facinating for the reader. Like you, I'm a bit uncomfortable at the idea of assuming another writer's voice, at least for public consumption. Then again, I'm keen to read David Lodge's and Colm Toibin's respective Henry James novels which must be the same sort of undertaking. Thanks for provoking me to think about this!

  6. I'm intrigued, I read The Gravedigger's Daughter recently and want some more Oates. Good review and interesting thoughts. I might try this.

  7. Yay! Yours is the first review I've read of this one. I heard mention of it on NPR a long time ago, and somehow I got distracted and it never made it to my wishlist. Bad me!

  8. For some reason, I'm not crazy about finding real people in fiction (with a few exceptions), but I often love finding other people's fictional characters turning up in new books. Kipling's Kim turning up as an adult in one of Laurie King's mysteries, for instance. It's fun. Thanks for the review!

  9. Michele - you'll have to share your thoughts on the Wilde mystery!

    Anna & Sandra- it's hard to keep up to Oates, isn't it! She never stops writing...

    Serena - I'd be interested in your take on it too.

    Dorthy & Kate - I don't mind if a real person shows up as an incidental character, doing something they could possibly have done, maybe, but to take over another person's interior voice doesn't sit well with me. That's why I haven't read the Toibin!

    Andi - I think you'd find this one intriguing reading.

    Jenny - somehow I don't mind if fictional characters from other novels appear; they're all part of the same world somehow. And of course when it's done by Laurie King it has to be good. ;)


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