Joyce Carol Oates prefaces her novel with a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe:
If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own. . . . All that he has to do is write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple—a few plain words—“My Heart Laid Bare.” But this little book must be true to its title. . . . No man could write it, even if he dared.
What Poe must have had in mind was something quite different from what Oates delivers. She has no intention of laying her own heart bare—at least in this novel. Her catchy (and somewhat misleading) title refers to a memoir her protagonist Abraham Licht intends to write someday but leaves unfinished at his death. Readers who expect to hear a famous woman author’s personal confession may feel confused when they find themselves involved with a complicated semihistorical, semi-Gothic, partially tongue-in-cheek story reminiscent of Oates’ Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984). Oates called those popular books “parodistic,” explaining that “they are not exactly parodies, because they take the forms they imitate quite seriously.”
The Licht family home in Muirkirk in upstate New York is an abandoned church that Poe would have found charming. It will remind readers of the mansion that sank into the black and lurid tarn at the end of his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). When the sect that built the church in Muirkirk went out of business, nobody bid on the property but the mysterious Abraham Licht. The sprawling structure on the edge of a fetid marsh recalls Poe’s “ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” in his ballad “Ulalume” (1847). The building had been abandoned because the site was so unhealthy that the parishioners were dying off like flies. Licht himself loses two of the women who are presumed to be his wives, but he always manages to find other women to replace those who succumb to illness. He is the quintessential laissez-faire Social Darwinist of the late nineteenth century. He teaches his children that life is an endless struggle for survival, with every individual pitted against every other. Their only allegiance should be to the family, particularly to himself. Every outsider should be regarded as an enemy and potential victim.
One of the youngest children, Darian, is a musical genius, but his genius and isolation lead him into creating bizarre, discordant music imitating the rain on the roof, the howling of the wind, and the shrill cries of birds in the marsh. The reader can imagine the spooky piano music echoing off the sweating stone walls, adding to the Gothic gloom and malaise.
The only servant is Katrina, a superstitious old woman who fills the children’s minds with her fears and fantasies. She will remind many readers of the character played by actress Maria Ouspenskaya, who kept popping up in the horror film classic The Wolf Man (1941) to warn Lon Chaney, Jr., that “even a man who’s pure in soul and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Katrina warns the children against the marsh, telling them that “it is the place of pestilence, it is the place of lost children, the flies will cover your eyes if you go, the flies will fill your mouth and crawl up your nostrils and eat out your skull if you go. . . .” Anyone can see that the marsh is being set up to figure in the climax, as did the great Grimpen Mire in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902).
With such a father and such a home, it is not surprising that the children grow to be eccentric and headstrong individuals. Abraham is often away for months working out a scam under one of his countless aliases. He fixes horse races and steals the winnings. He manufactures a bottled cure-all laced with opium. He is so smooth that he even manages to make friends with President Warren Harding and members of the president’s inner circle. When Abraham comes home, he nearly devours his children with love, like many a modern absentee father whom divorce and career have separated from his family. The children have mixed feeling towards their permissive-demanding, loving-neglectful, generous-selfish father. They wish to please him and earn his approval; at the same time, they would like to break free from his whiskery, bourbon- scented embraces and seek out their own identities.
Abraham’s two oldest sons are temperamentally as different as Cain and Abel. Thurston is tall, handsome, and refined; Harwood is stocky, ugly, and vulgar. Harwood is the only member of the family who is vicious. When Thurston is scheming to...
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