Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Heart Laid Bare

Book Cover: My Heart Laid Bare

I recently read Joyce Carol Oates' 1998 novel, My Heart Laid Bare. It details the lives of a family of con artists from the 1880's through 1930. While they swindle all over the continental United States, their base of operations is in the imaginary Upstate New York region of Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance.

Like those other two novels, My Heart Laid Bare is written in an odd mix of popular nineteenth century prose and a more modern voice. Reviewers seem not to like this, and these books are all out of print, so perhaps the style is not popular among readers either. I find it fascinating, and after a few pages, it seems so natural and appropriate that I cease to notice it.

Oates' novel includes wealthy industrialists, fraudulent medical cures, the Harding administration, race relations, the Kentucky Derby, and many other venues for enterprising grifters. The historical details make it vivid and convincing, and the Gothic supernatural details keep me wondering if they are real or imagined.

The title My Heart Laid Bare comes from Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote:

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--the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to 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.

[Now, is it not very singular that, with the rabid thirst for notoriety which distinguishes so many of mankind--so many, too, who care not a fig what is thought of them after death, there should not be found one man having sufficient hardihood to write this little book? To write, I say. There are ten thousand men who, if the book were once written, would laugh at the notion of being disturbed by its publication during their life, and who could not even conceive why they should object to its being published after their death. But to write it--there is the rub.] No man dare write it. [No man ever will dare write it.] No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.

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