My Heart Laid Bare

My Heart Laid Bare

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by Joyce Carol Oates

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My Heart Laid Bare is a striking departure for Joyce Carol Oates: a sweeping epic novel of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising confidence artists in 19th-century America. Mythic in scope, it is Oates' most daring work yet -- a stunning tale of crime and transgression, and of a mysterious and tragic woman whose secret history resonates fromSee more details below


My Heart Laid Bare is a striking departure for Joyce Carol Oates: a sweeping epic novel of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising confidence artists in 19th-century America. Mythic in scope, it is Oates' most daring work yet -- a stunning tale of crime and transgression, and of a mysterious and tragic woman whose secret history resonates from one century to another -- with profound moral consequences.

Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Judd

In My Heart Laid Bare, Joyce Carol Oates' writing style cries out for parody. Oates has an unchecked passion for italics, repetition of sounds and phrases, capriciously placed quotation marks and bizarre, parenthetical asides. Exclamation points hover mid-sentence, as the grande dame of prolific prose -- lucky writer! -- pulls out all the stops to make her story dramatic, daring, deathless. Still, My Heart Laid Bare is "more" entertaining and spirited than many of the restrained, elegant works of Oates' peers (poor mortals! mortal mortals!).

Each of the early vignettes, which are set in upstate New York in 1891, introduces a different cast of characters but plays out an identical plot line: An upper-class poseur, grasping for power, money or position, is gulled by an insider who isn't what he or she seems. Behind every con is one of the shape-shifting Lichts, a family of criminals who excel at bilking others by means of biblical quotes, an endless parade of new identities and indoctrination into "The Game," a carefully honed creed of personal growth through stealing. Patriarch Abraham Licht says it this way: "Crime? Then complicity. Complicity? Then no crime."

The novel owes its energy to Oates' gift for larger than life scene-writing. No expression is too hyperbolic for the Lichts, especially Abraham's daughter Millicent, whose hauteur borders on the farcical. When a schoolgirl gushes over Millicent's beauty, calling her a Greek god, the child responds by saying: "Please! -- it is all we have to do, being mortal." The Lichts have their antecedents in Shakespeare; Abraham is a benighted figure, a Richard III or Lear, whose cruelty toward others is mitigated by his deep love for his children. But the family destiny is pure Greek tragedy. From the moment Abraham tells one child, "You are my son; you are my creation," the reader knows that hundreds of pages of betrayal lie ahead.

Although Oates has written a lively and diverting saga, she also hints at larger historical themes in portraying the Lichts' undoing as a uniquely American fall. When Abraham is asked to censure his children for their misdeeds, he turns a blind eye, saying: "'Memory is not an American predilection. Where it cripples action, it's wise to forgo the past.'" Later, Abraham invokes William James' notion that "'we are as many 'selves' as there are individuals who know us" to justify a life of deceit. By the end of the novel, Oates' overheated prose seems oddly fitting for a dark comedy about our national preoccupation with self-invention. -- Salon

Sarah Kerr
Oates's accomplishment here, it seems to me, is to construct a total system, an original way of looking at American history that comments interestingly on many levels of American life. --New York Times Book Review
Megan Harlan
. . .highly diverting. . . .Through cunning explorations of American capitalism, criminal aptitude, and family dynamics, Oates freates a rollicking, epochal read. —Entertainment Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Is there a rogue gene? Such is the intriguing premise of Oates's frisky and bitingly ironic 28th novel (after What I Lived For), in which a dynasty of confidence artists is launched by a convicted felon in 18th-century London. The scene then shifts to western New York in 1909, when the mysterious Dr. Washburn Frelicht is forced at gunpoint to surrender his racetrack winnings. Meanwhile, not far away, a penniless and pregnant young woman extorts money from her dead lover's family. Frelicht (aka Abraham Licht, consummate con man) knows the robber is Elisha, the black boy he adopted in infancy; the supposedly unfortunate young woman is Licht's daughter Millicent. Enter Licht's biological son Thurston, engaged to marry a wealthy widow, and his evil brother Harwood, who wants a piece of the action. Harwood murders the widow and flees, leaving his brother to answer for the crime. Banished to Colorado by his father, Harwood meets his mirror image in a wealthy heir from Philadelphia who yearns to reaffirm his manhood in the wilderness. Harwood obliges and the heir disappears, only to be reborn in the biggest scam of all. When Millicent falls for Elisha, Abe disowns the young man. Bitter and resentful, Elisha revolts against his white upbringing and becomes a radical. Gradually, the three mothers of Abe's assorted children abandon him, even as he bemoans the fact that his youngest son, a musical prodigy of gentle temperament, is ill-suited for the Game. Not surprisingly, this complex fabrication has its minor pitfalls: Abe has an infuriating habit of talking to himself, aliases fly faster than speeding bullets and the plot's many twists occasionally confuse. Still, it's impossible to resist the pull of Oates' lush narrative. Abraham Licht is unforgettable. As chief orchestrator of a family's misbehaviors, he becomes the quintessential silver fox, a rogue to remember.
Library Journal
For Abraham Licht, whether he is creating the society for the Reclamation and Restoration of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Parris Clinic, or any other of his several schemes to get rich, the Game is a philosophy of life. Living in an old church in upstate New York on the edge of a swamp where Sarah Licht disappeared in 1640 and where ghosts, strange fruit, and mysterious sounds exist, Abraham raises his family, teaching his four older children the rules, while recognizing that the two youngest are not for the Game. This dynasty of schemers is not to be, as their difficult relationship with their father force Abraham's offspring to transform their view of the Game. Following her early historical Gothic novels such as Bellefleur (LJ 7/80), Oates explores America's meeting the Fricks, Morgans, and Rockefellers while facing the Great War, the roaring Twenties, and the stock market crash. With a smooth, stylish narrative, she investigates the relationship between deception and morality and in the process paints an alternative vision of that period. Highly recommended for all libraries.
--Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie, NY
The Nation
Oates's unblinking curiosity about human nature is one of the great artistic forces of our time.
Washington Post
Will take you on a dark and wild ride.
San Francisco Chronicle
Dazzling...Oates at her most playful and inventive.
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's 28th novel, another installment in the "Gothic Quintet" that includes such energetic faux romances as Bellefleur (1980) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), is one of her most inventive and entertaining yet. The story is a surprisingly deft allegory of the formation and fortunes of the American republic, spanning three centuries and the history of a family of resourceful scalawags who embody the seductive charm and adroit criminality of their inchoate country as it shapes its own destiny. The foreground actions include the execution of "outlaw" lady's maid Sarah Wilcox and a fortune won at the racetrackþwhich is later stolen, then later still makes Sarah's descendants rich. Their dominant member is Abraham Licht, an urbane confidence man whose love of creating labyrinthine swindles ("The Game," in his parlance) takes such forms as a larcenous "Society for the Reclamation and Restoration of E. Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte" (i.e., the former emperor's unthroned son) and his imposture of Dr. Moses Liebknecht, a practitioner of "Autogenic Self-Mastery" who "treats," romances, and weds a wealthy sanatorium patient. Abraham's duplicitous proclivities are inherited, to varying degrees, by his sons Thurston (an accidental murderer), Harwood (a calculating one who, furthermore, assumes his victim's identity), and Darian (a gifted musician who will fall in love with his stepmother), as well as their black adopted brother Elisha, who will become a charismatic black leader, and Abraham's eldest daughter Millicent, Elisha's lover and a trickster scarcely inferior to her progenitor. Oates juggles all this high-concept hugger-mugger expertly, springing one amusing narrativesurprise after another while also working an impressive amount of U.S. history into the fabric of her extravagantly colorful characters' adventures. Nor is her manifest (though never obtrusive) theme neglected: This being a persuasive vision of an America founded on violence, miscegenation, and rapacious self-interest. That the result is also irresistibly comic is so much frosting on a sumptuous cake and one of the most inviting products of Oates's incomparably rich imagination.

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Penguin Group (USA)
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5.24(w) x 7.96(h) x 1.19(d)

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