Collected Works: Literature

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by Joyce Carol Oates

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Somewhere off the highway outside Hilsinger, Wisconsin stands a row of ugly cabins. Inside are plastic curtains and dead flies on windowsills. A man stares at the ‘opaque feverish form’ in the yellowish mirror above his sink. He must prepare himself for the woman he desires, but can only find a razor blade and a sliver of soap. His hands slip and blood spurts from his cheek, forming an unstoppable, mesmeric stream. He draws the blade down again, on his other cheek, chest, stomach, shoulder, and pubic hair.

Written for all ‘who pursue the phantasmagoria of personality’, Wonderland chronicles the shifting identity of Jesse Vogel. Jesse’s life is recounted to us: the loss of his family to extreme violence; the gluttonous patriarch who takes him on; and his subsequent, abrupt disownment. Alone once more, he works himself to the bone as a medical intern. Jesse eventually becomes a husband, father, and eminent brain surgeon, lecturing in New York and writing papers on retrograde amnesia, but his own traumatic memories lurk.

Just as the novel’s protagonist is haunted by the ghosts of his past, Joyce Carol Oates conjures a life so vivid that it refuses to leave us. Jesse takes hold of the reader, as he seeks to possess those who he loves. His wife is being ‘destroyed’ by him; the woman who he pursues an affair with says he will ‘suffocate’ her. Jesse is part of a generation rife with misogyny, with women viewed as inferior and unfathomable. The book often dips into the consciousness of the female characters, illuminating their realities.

Such fluctuations of perspective underscore misconceptions, suggesting that we are all unknowable. Jesse has dedicated his life to the brain, yet people remain frustratingly enigmatic to him. No amount of ‘testing, analysing, diagnosing, correcting, curing’ will clear the murkiness of the mind. Although Jesse’s hands expertly incise and stitch, he scratches only the soul’s ‘living surface’. As blood drains away, the scarlet fluid flows like a storyline, the chaos of human existence sustained by the life force at its centre.

Words by Emma McKinlay

More to discover

You can read an excerpt of Wonderland here. Robert Phillips has interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for The Paris Review, as have Stuart Spencer for BOMB Magazine, Hermione Hoby for The Guardian, and Jessica Grose for The Telegraph. Melissa Chadburn has written about growing up with the Wonderland Quartet for Buzzfeed.

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