"My Heart Laid Bare," Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton. 532 pages. $26.95.
What contemporary novel depicts fictional characters against backdrop of "real" American history in times of sociopolitical flux? What novel portrays historical horrors so graphically you have to put the book aside to recuperate? What novel features picaresque women? Can you name a book that actually makes you smell its era? Can you recall a romance set in Revolutionary America that high school students passed around under their desks in the Fifties? What about a book starring ... (Church Lady voice here) ... SATAN?
Finally, can you name a 500-pager written mostly in questions?
You probably answered "Ragtime," "All Saints Rising," "Fanny," "Moll Flanders," "Perfume," "Stars on the Sea" or "Paradise Lost." Sorry: Joyce Carol Oates' new novel, "My Heart Laid Bare," is today's correct response to all the above. The latest of her 28 books, this one adds "postmodern historical fiction" to the genres she explores, genres that include short fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry. It is a razzle-dazzle performance - entertaining and exhausting.
Though the book spans the 17th through the 20th centuries, knowing your American history is less important in unraveling it than knowing your Genesis, particularly the lurid stories of the Fall, Abraham, Sarai/Sarah and all the clusters of half-related progeny; the whole who's whose in which actual parentage becomes an issue because of falsified identifies and wildly inappropriate couplings.
It's also helpful to know your etymology. The book's central family bears the surname Licht, "light" meaning "that which shines, by which we see" and "light" meaning "to alight." Licht recalls Lucifer, the archangel of Light who fell to Prince of Darkness, and also millennia of wanderers who alight in foreign parts - even the Abraham men who wandered London pretending to be madmen.
Oates' Abraham is a patriarch who, in various guises and over several centuries, peoples his New World with children of indeterminate number and racial identity. Their intelligence and charms run the gamut; their natural inclinations include both musical genius and murder. They are at once Everybody and Ubermenschen. Immortal, they do not die but disappear into the dark marsh surrounding the family's east coast manse, Muirkirk, "moor church."
Yes, Oates had a good time naming her characters. Patriarch Licht's is obvious; early in the book he clarifies his Luciferian Prince of Darkness role with a list of Rules for the Game, the cosmic grift he and his offspring operate: Its Commandments boil down to "Evil, be thou my Good." The Licht matriarch is Sarah. Servant Katrina (a former wife? mother?) suggests Keturah, one of Abraham's more shadowy wives.
The Game involves many aliases. Abraham Licht is also Dr. Frelicht ("free light," as in freelance?) and Murray Kirk. Gorgeous black Elisha, son or foundling, becomes Elijii (as in the biblical Elisha/Elijah duo) in an attempt to rescue golden son Thurston, wrongly condemned to death. Thurston, alias Christopher Schoenlict (Christ "Beautiful light"?), denies his lineage by thirsting for good. And so on.
The book's elaborate artifices include wild shifts of diction, point of view and syntax that ranges from archaism reminiscent of "The Sotweed Factor" to history-text exposition. Yet despite its tricks, "My Heart Laid Bare" sidles up to the reader's heart. Abraham's despair when his powers fail to "save" his son; the broken spirit that takes wife Morna to the marsh; the childish cruelty of daughter Millie Licht ("millions of lights"?) who forgets her mother as soon as Daddy brings home a pretty young replacement; frail piano-prodigy Darien's desperate playing-to-please: Such passages made me ache.
"My Heart Laid Bare" is exuberant, disturbing, funny, serious and bodice-rippingly sexy enough to be passed around under high school desks - no esoteric knowledge required. It's Oates at the top of her Game.
Clarinda Harriss is chairwoman of the English department at Towson State University. She edits and directs the New Poets Series. Her most recent collection of poems, "License Renewal for the Blind," won the 1994 American Chapbook Award.
! Pub date: 6/07/98