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Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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A-Wild NightsWith more than 50 works of fiction to her name (including Black Girl/White Girl, 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2007), Joyce Carol Oates, one of our most prolific writers and a professor of creative writing at Princeton, mixes the gothic with the violent and the sensationalistic.

The Story: As death approaches, five American literary giants spend the last days (or nights) of life wallowing in solitude, loneliness, deprivation, and feelings of inevitable loss. In "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," Emily Dickinson is an intriguing recluse—no less sexually attractive to a childless husband for being a computerized avatar. In "Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House," written as a fictitious diary, Poe slowly goes crazy as a lighthouse keeper near Chile. In "Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906," an aging Mark Twain befriends a group of adoring schoolgirls—the younger the better. And Hemingway? He prepares his shotgun one last time. But Henry James tends to the sick in an army hospital, trying to instill his life with love and meaning.
Ecco/HarperCollins. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0061434795

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a gem of a book—a pathography, in fact—about creativity and age and the complicated, anxiety-ridden relationship between the two. … In Wild Nights! art may be long, but death is indeed near, and humans poignantly enigmatic." Brenda Wineapple

Providence Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Here are five splendid stories, imagining five major American authors on the verge of death—each rooted in biographical facts and presented in the authors’ own particular style—that are harrowing, heartfelt, incredibly moving, that cut to the depths of the psyche, probing with such laser-lean, honed prose that it’ll take your breath away. … What underscores all these tales is Oates’ brooding sense of loneliness and aloneness, that shock of recognition on the verge of the self’s certain extinction." Sam Coale

Rocky Mountain News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Oates’ ability to replicate the style of the writer she is memorializing is amazing. … Not that it diminishes the writing or the substance of the stories, but Oates certainly preys on the damaged parts of these writers’ psyches." Gary Williams

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"In these five tales—all compelling, erudite, uniquely horrifying—Oates once again displays her astonishing capacity to inhabit her characters’ minds. … And every time—every single time—Oates shows us not some singularity. She shows us ourselves." Daniel Dyer

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The five stories are competently written, but they should be read in a certain mood, one of cynicism about human nature. … The tortuous, coiling inwardness of Henry James remains, not surprisingly, beyond Oates’ reach." Brigitte Frase

Critical Summary

Oates is the consummate voyeur, whether she’s exploring the worlds of murderers, dysfunctional teens, or alienated women. Here, in this sordid look at literary greats, each with his or her damaged psyche, she reimagines their final days. Most critics lauded Oates’s ability to imitate the distinctive styles of the writers—particularly those of Poe and Hemingway—and felt moved by each story, no matter how distasteful the twists. While critics cited "EDickinsonRepliLuxe" as the most whimsical story, the others are equally compelling (and disturbing). Only one naysayer—the Minneapolis Star Tribune—cited some "creepy sex," "ludicrous" writing, and "cruel thought experiments." Then again, this story collection is Oates, and we should expect from her nothing less than a full examination of the human soul.