James Joyce once wished for an “ideal reader with an ideal case of insomnia”; a reader of Joyce Carol Oates similarly needs an ideal insomnia to plow through the 50-plus novels of this legendarily prolific writer. As it turns out, Oates herself suffers from insomnia, and has since she was a girl, using her night hours productively and well. Her new book, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, offers an exquisitely rendered glimpse of her own childhood in rural upstate New York.
As in her 2011 memoir, A Widow’s Story, Oates writes tactfully, perhaps even grudgingly, avoiding the over-share, the “too much information” of the contemporary misery memoir. But the opportunity to follow her beautifully subtle stream of consciousness as it revisits the past is not to be missed. Oates sees herself as a ghost revisiting the old farmhouse of her childhood, the one-room schoolhouse she attended and the winding country roads of Sunday drives with her beloved parents. This book is as much a meditation on memory as it is a recollection of a specific time and place.
Composed of separate essays, many previously published, The Lost Landscape can feel a bit repetitive, although never scattered. This makes it a perfect book for readers looking for short, contained “memoir-ish” (Oates’ term) essays. She is particularly good at capturing the post-Depression world of working-class rural life, when finishing high school was a real achievement. Had young Joyce not been bused to a Buffalo suburb for high school, she might never have gone to college or become the eminent American author she is today. And yet, as The Lost Landscape shows, the world of childhood is also the source of her astonishing creativity and genius.