Guernica Magazine

Joyce Carol Oates: Failure is Just Preparation

The author on her career, Shirley Jackson, and why we should all be more like cats. The post Joyce Carol Oates: Failure is Just Preparation appeared first on Guernica.
Photo by Dustin Cohen

You might not guess it from the cover, but Joyce Carol Oates has built her most recent novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, around a mordantly funny joke of an idea. The story opens in a near-future dystopia, whose cruelties Oates spryly dashes through, where young people—and especially young women—are taught never to stand out. Her heroine, a bright high school senior, can’t quite swallow herself back. Soon, for the crime of public thoughtfulness, she’s cast out of her society. Her punishment? She’s sent back in time to take courses at a Midwestern liberal arts college in 1959.  The dystopia that fascinates Oates isn’t one of the future hellscapes that have reigned on best-seller lists. It’s the everyday life and education of American women some 60 years back, when Oates herself was a college student.

Oates’s first published novel, With Shuddering Fall, appeared in 1964. In the half-century since, she has written several shelves’ worth of novels, plays, and memoirs, as well as collections of stories, poems, essays, and criticism. A list of her awards and commendations would fill a shelf, too; she is arguably her country’s most distinguished living writer. What matters most right now is that the last few years have found her publishing urgent, compelling, of-the-moment books, fully engaged with the concerns that have always powered her work.

The epic from 2017, plunges deep into the national divide, surveying the mind and family of a murdered Midwestern abortion provider—and then following the daughters of both the killer and the victim to study the fallout. (That novel also features scarifying passages about one of Oates’ great subjects, boxing: in this case, the brutal life of an amateur woman fighter.) The story collection (2018) offers, among other surprises, a playful tribute to Donald Barthelme and the gripping dread of “Undocumented Alien,” a Pushcart-winning story told in the lab notes of a nasty scientific experiment. Experiments, both literary and terrifying, continue in 2018’s , a collection of horror-inspired genre works that includes the story of a university lab tech arranging a surreptitious inter-species impregnation. Also in : “The Woman in the Window,” inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting “Eleven A.M.”  and included in , and one suspenseful tale inspired by Shirley

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