Writing fiction requires talents akin to those of, say, a con artist: an ability to lie convincingly, a fervent belief in imagined worlds, and a cocky confidence that your audience wants to be seduced by deception. In My Heart Laid Bare, a mythic family saga spanning generations, these qualities are embraced by both Joyce Carol Oates and her tragic, mesmerizing characters.
Abraham Licht is patriarch of a household that includes six children and a gothic housekeeper of unexplained origins. The three women who bore the children are long-gone, unable to adjust to the drama of the con artist's life one minute flush with money, the next running from the law. With fervor and unquestioned certainty, Abraham has dedicated his life to this Game, complete with commandments, prophecies, and ancestors of biblical proportions. Devoutly, he raises his motherless children within the constructed value system of this con world, teaching them from infancy that "God is theirs and the Game, ours." Inside this morally charged context, Oates poetically describes the simplicity common to almost every family childhood games, sibling love and rivalry, adolescent awakenings and the unusual elements of the Licht family stemming from their religion of deception. Abraham deems four of his children suitable to join him at the Game, the other two he leaves behind at Muirkirk a renovated church at the edge of a swamp, and mystical sanctuary from the Enemy. In the exterior world, Abraham and his children develop elaborate cons that include new personalities, counterfeited history, and manipulation of their victim's hidden secrets. Initially languid, the story becomes increasingly urgent as all the children reach adulthood, each with their unique adaptation to their father's world. Oates shifts narrative voices, giving Abraham and each child an opportunity to explain the world from their point of view, emphasizing the details most important to each. In less masterful hands, this alternating narration might be confusing, but her technique is wonderfully successful, resulting in a rich layer of actions and emotions. Her style is impressionistic, with repeating phrases, sparse description, and metaphorical actions. It mimics the way we process both the banal and the exciting in everyday life. Vicariously, the reader experiences the heady mixture of thrill, intrigue, and superiority that accompany a successful con. Oates also conveys the brutal humiliation and violence of a scam gone wrong, and the tragic consequences of the Licht religion for Abraham's children. Ultimately, the Game becomes a metaphor for life itself. While Abraham's biography is full of adventure (of a sort), Oates reminds us that time, the eternal equalizer, dishes out the same events, no matter how dressed up they may be with deception or imagination. At the end, even the life of a con artist can be distilled into a few simple truths common to us all including the fact that Joyce Carol Oates has, yet again, written a richly textured and exciting book.
Reviewed by Kathleen McFall.