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A Garden of Earthly Delightsby by Joyce Carol OatesThe Modern Library. 432p. $13.95 (paperback)

In her preface to Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, published 24 years ago, the author wrote: Once a literary work is published it passes forever out of the private and protective world of the writer’s imagination, and out of his or her possession. It cannot be reclaimed. These passive-voiced sentences belonged, however, to a novelist who continually revised her sensibilities. Sometimes long careers empower artists to retrieve a text into the cocoon of their imagination.

Next year marks Joyce Carol Oates’s 40th as a thriving novelist, a career distinguished by 37 novels, numerous shorter works and a den-full of honors, including a National Book Award. In 2000 she embarked on a retrospective mission by retouching Them, the concluding novel (originally published in 1969) of her 1960’s trilogy. This year she has tackled the initial book of the trilogy, A Garden of Earthly Delights (originally published in 1967) for the Modern Library’s 20th Century Rediscovery series. As Henry James had done with his early novels in their New York edition, Oates saved her most conscientious revisionist energies for A Garden, her second published novel.

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Her efforts are more engagingly artistic than editorial, producing an impressively different reading experience from the 1967 text. In her afterword to the new edition, Oates recounts that she originally composed A Garden at a White Heat (invoking Emily Dickinson’s metaphor). The book’s previous mystical cohesion dissatisfied her in her 2002 rereading: I failed to allow their [the principal characters’] singular voices to infuse the text sufficiently; the narrative voice, a version of the author’s voice, too frequently summarized and analyzed, and did not dramatize the scenes that were as vivid to me as episodes of my own life. By limiting that third-person narrator, Oates positions her Gothic vision more centrally in the story.

In the painting from 1504 from which Oates obtains her title, Hieronymus Bosch reminds his viewer that his sensibility dominates the allegory by painting himself bizarrely into the third panel of the triptych. Instead of moving from Eden through earth to hell, as in the painting, Oates’s protagonist travels from the hell of a migrant camp through an uncertain existence where joys are imagined, to an economic and social Eden, represented by Curt Revere’s farm. But as was true in the painting, this garden cultivates the seeds of its own destruction.

The 1967 novel demonstrates Oates’s debt to many literary sources. The surname of her protagonist, Clara, is Walpole, after the progenitor of Gothic fiction. Clara’s nickname for her son is Swan, in homage to Proust. The most shaping influence was the work of William Faulkner, whose exploration of the human capacity to endure foreshadows Oates’s account about one woman’s struggle to escape migrant poverty. The book’s structure resembles that of The Sound and the Fury, where Faulkner delineates Caddy Compson reflectively through the prejudicial narratives of her three brothers. Likewise, Oates draws Clara framed by her relationship with three dominating men. In her father, Carleton, Clara witnesses a futile but heroic struggle against brutal privation, an environment that consumes both hope and existence. When this world turns upon her, as it must do, she runs off to a small town in New York with Lowry, a reluctant lover whose mysterious life monopolizes Clara’s fantasies during her sexual awakening. The novel’s third section traces the schemes she pursues for the sake of her son, Swan. But the grotesqueness of existence she thought she had escaped permeates the American dream she strove to realize. Like his grandfather’s explosions, Swan’s subliminal violence erupts to destroy the Revere family and ruin Eden.

Does Oates succeed in giving these characters more authentic voices in the 2003 text? In a word, yes. Compare, for instance, these passages:

 

Just things, he said vaguely and sadly. He looked at Clara. I think it might be because of Swan.

Steven, Clara said. The name Swan now embarrassed her; it was not a good name. It was no name at all. (1967)

Now Clark said, shifting his broad shoulders inside his shirt, I think maybe, I guess it might bebecause of Steven.

Steven. Clara had come to prefer Steven to Swan, at about the time she’d had her hair styled, and her teeth capped. At about the time she’d overheard several Revere women laughing at the name Swan at a Christmas gathering.

Goddamn, the name Swan embarrassed the hell out of her, now. It was white trash, so clearly. Worse than no name at all. (2003)

A Garden of Earthly Delights is replete with such deft reworkings. The Carleton section now ends apocalyptically, permitting readers to react more viscerally to the father’s death. If nothing else, the 2003 version attests to the narrative precision Oates has honed during the last four decades.

Not all the alterations are fortunate. At times, Oates gets the facts of her plot confused. In the conversation between Clara and her stepson above, Clark’s use of Steven in the revised passage makes Clara’s correction and internal response unnecessary. In an earlier scene, Clara marries Revere when Swan is seven. Two years later, Swan attends his first funeral, where Revere and Clara argue in this rewritten passage:

 

Yes, Clara. The boy should see. He’s of age.

Of age? Goddamn he’s seven.

Seven is the age of reason. Calm yourself, Clara.

On occasion, anachronisms also sneak into the 2003 text. When Swan becomes fascinated by dinosaurs, Revere mentions that a comet strike may have destroyed them, a theory not popularized until the Alverezes championed it in 1980, long after the post-World War II time frame of the scene.

In another 35 years, to celebrate the centennial of Oates’s birth, an enterprising university press will likely undertake a scholarly edition of her oeuvre. Will the editor choose the 1967 text, composed at White Heat, or the more calculated 2003 version as the authoritative text? Like Henry James before her, Oates has made her preference known by the act of revision. In effect, she has reprimanded the writer she once was, or, to borrow from her favorite Dickinson poem, she has dared to repudiate the forge.

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