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 saga of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising confidence artists in 19th-century America. Mythic in scope, ballad-like in the telling, it is Oates's most daring work yet--a stunning tale of crime and transgression--with profound moral consequences.



My Heart Laid Bare is a striking departure for Joyce Carol Oates: a sweeping saga of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising confidence artists in 19th-century America. Mythic in scope, ballad-like in the telling, it is Oates's most daring work yet--a stunning tale of crime and transgression--with profound moral consequences.

Oates's picture of America as a land of opportunity to immigrants and settlers takes on a dark tone as we see these veritable shape-shifters exploit the unsuspecting rich by appealing to their deepest flaws. Yet recognizing the sins of greed, lust, pride, and small-mindedness in others does not prevent the patriarch and his brilliant children from being laid low by the same faults.

From the virgin provinces of New York State to the rough and tumble Western frontier, from the backrooms of Washington, D.C., to the Atlantic City of the Gilded Age, from Carnegie Hall to Harlem in the twenties, My Heart Laid Bare transports readers with its mesmerizing narrative voice.

"Dazzling...Oates at her most playful and inventive." --San Francisco Chronicle

"Provocative...Oates's accomplishment here is to construct an original way of looking at American history." --The New York Times Book Review

"A triumph...shows off Oates's macabre, lushly poetic imagination, almost feverish, yet always in perfect control." --San Diego Union Tribune

"Fresh, spirited...full of zestful criminality." --Atlanta Journal Constitution

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
June 1998

"Intriguing and bitingly ironic.... It's impossible to resist the pull of Oates' lush narrative.... Unforgettable." —Publishers Weekly

"Oates's most inventive and entertaining yet.... Irresistibly comic.... One of the most inviting products of Oates's incomparably rich imagination." —Kirkus Reviews

Joyce Carol Oates has been hailed as "a fearless writer...with impossibly lush and dead-on imaginative power" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Her unwavering curiosity about human nature has been described as "one of the great artistic forces of our time" (The Nation). The New York Times reports: "What keeps us coming back to Oates country is her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something happening on the other side that we'd swear was life itself."

In My Heart Laid Bare, Oates embarks on a striking, surprising new direction: This is a sweeping, mythical novel of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising con artists in 19th-century America. Epic in scope, it is Oates's most daring work yet, a stunning tale of crime and transgression, and of a mysterious and tragic woman whose secret history ricochets from one century to another with profound moral consequences.

The novel begins in 1891. The man is Abraham Licht, a confidence man who has arrived in the marshy environs of Old Muirkirk, the site of a lost colony of Dutch settlers who vanished without a trace in the 1640s. Abraham's mission is to establish his criminal dynasty. Thurston and Harwood, his two sons, emulatetheirdashing father, only to be drawn into heinous murder. Beautiful Millicent, her father's equal in the Game, is his superior in the more dangerous game of family control. Elisha, the adopted son, Abraham's true heir in talent and ambition, has been cruelly banished from his father's love.

Each of Licht's offspring will strike out on his or her own, taking the story to regions and realms as diverse as the political backrooms of Washington, D.C., the Atlantic City of the Gilded Age, the rough-and-tumble of the western frontier, Carnegie Hall, and Harlem in the '20s and '30s. The sinister Abraham Licht will live to see the dark, unholy secrets of the soul bared at last, as brother turns against brother, lover against lover, blood against blood.

My Heart Laid Bare presents a brand-new version of American history in which the sins of one century resonate in the next, with dramatic consequences. It is a sumptuous, sinuous novel of brilliant invention with a mesmerizing narrative voice. At the center is an unforgettable family, as strongly possessed of the power to deceive as they are of the power to love.

Megan Harlan
. . .highly diverting. . . .Through cunning explorations of American capitalism, criminal aptitude, and family dynamics, Oates freates a rollicking, epochal read. —Entertainment Weekly
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
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
Washington Post
Will take you on a dark and wild ride.
San Francisco Chronicle
Dazzling...Oates at her most playful and inventive.
The Nation
Oates's unblinking curiosity about human nature is one of the great artistic forces of our time.
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.

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.24(w) x 7.96(h) x 1.19(d)

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Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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My Heart Laid Bare 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is an adventure. It is about a family of grifters who go through life conning the world and paying the inevitable price(s). There's a little love and incest thrown in and racial identity is also a theme. The characters each have their own sense of superiority over the world and have honed their own strengths. They are fierce and loathsome except that you love them so much.