I just finished Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection,Wild Nights. The collection was comprised of five stories about the last days of the great American writers: Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway.
I’ve already expressed my feelings on Oates’ story of Heminway’s suicide, so I’ll look at the other four stories in this post.
Let me say, upfront, that the book is truly a showcase of a great writer. Oates was able to effectively emulate the styles of five very different writers, and pull it off very well.
The first story, Poe Posthumous, is set in the days following Poe’s alleged death on a remote island where Poe has been sent as a human study in isolation. His only companion is his dog, and Poe’s fictional diary entries go from fluid reflections on daily life, to the inchoherent ravings of a man gone mad. It is gruesome and foul and exquisitely Poe-like.
The second story, EDickinson RepliLuxe, is futuristically bizarre, but enthralling. In it, a couple purchase a RepliLuxe–a robotic copy of a famous figure from history–of Emily Dickinson, to come and live in their house as part of the family. Her presence slowly unravels the husband and wife who both deal with the difficulties of humanizing a machine, and ultimately, how they are dehumanized in the process.
The third story, Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906, was a disturbing snapshot of Mark Twain as an elderly man. Apparently, Twain was fond of young girls and created a club of girls who were particulary lovely, young, sweet, and without the burden of pain in their lives as companions and pen pals. The story chronicles Twain’s relationship with one of the girls and its bad ending.
The fourth story, The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, is the most redeeming of the stories, though it is still shadowed by the stain of human weakness. It is about Henry James’ time volunteering in a hospital ward for wounded soldiers, and his relationship with one of them.
This book does what great books do, it shows you things you didn’t already know, and inspires you to learn more from it. As soon as I put it down I was searching for information on each of the writers featured. I knew nothing about Mark Twain or Henry James’ personal lives. I did know enough about Hemingway to catch Oates’ references to people, places, and events in his life and see that she had done her homework.
Wild Nights is more of a rainy-day-read than a beach book. There is nothing “feel good” about it. But I highly recommend it.