To everyone’s surprise, Joyce Carol Oates’ My Heart Laid Bare turned out to not be a trashy historical romance. Far from it: As far as I can surmise, it is a retelling of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, one of my absolute favorite books.
In fact, I culminated my years as an English major with a 20-page research paper and conference presentation on A, A!, meaning I can nerd out about it like nobody’s business. But let’s skip straight to the Oates.
Abraham Licht is descended from a lady’s maid who masqueraded around 18th-century Europe posing as nobility, stealing, and swindling, before finally being shot as a horse thief in the swamps near Old Muirkirk, New York. Abraham follows in her footsteps, raising his several children to play “The Game” with the high-rollers of the Progressive Era. The Licht family roams from Washington, D.C., to the mountains of Colorado, weaving elaborate stories and adopting complex costumes in the hopes of establishing themselves among America’s richest members of society.
As the years pass, however, the Licht children fall away from The Game. Some, like Thurston and Darian, take desperate measures to disassociate from their father’s overbearing will. Elisha and Millie, despite being perhaps the most promising Game players, are cast aside for their ultimate ungratefulness and insubordination; Harwood travels too deep into deceit and is sought for justice. Toward the end of his life, Abraham Licht finds himself grasping at any means available to maintain the legacy he has attempted to build through his progeny.
Here is where I started literally dog-earring pages, because the similarities between MHLB and A, A! were numerous.
Was he not Abraham Licht, most remarkable of men?—and might he not be again a lover, a bridegroom, again a father, holding his infant aloft, as if daring the hand of God Himself to strike it from him—?
He requires more children, another son at least, another son very soon, for his children have not entirely pleased him.
For where Abraham Licht loves, he must be loved in return: where he would surrender his soul, he must be granted a soul in return: otherwise The Game is wicked indeed. And he will not be cheated again: not another time! . . . if he wants another son, or even another daughter, to continue his name, it must happen soon.
Seriously. As I nerded out over Sutpen’s “design” two years ago in A, A!, so did I nerd out over Licht’s “Game.” Biblical themes for the win!
Thomas Sutpen, too, has a grand design of becoming a man of wealth and power at any cost. To that end, he attempts to forge a dynasty that will carry his name. Like Abraham Licht, he evaluates women solely on their ability to bear healthy children and otherwise passively support him, and like Licht, he is always “betrayed” by them. His children, too, operate as mechanisms in his grand design, until his indomitable will grinds them to failure and destitution. Absalom, Absalom!, said Faulkner, is “the story of a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him.”
If you like historical fiction, Biblical stories, broad and sweeping narratives, and characters with complex suffering, I recommend either (or both!) Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! or (and!) Oates’ My Heart Laid Bare. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.