Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 30, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
About the only group in Princeton more prevalent than
its notable writers are its avid readers. And while these readers
may get a charge out of finding themselves in the grocery checkout
line next to a prize-winning (be it Nobel, Pulitzer, National Book
Award, Newbery Medal — we’ve got them all) author or poet, the
real privilege of sharing the neighborhood is the face-to-face
dialogue it affords.
In the category of public chats, few have been more generous than
Joyce Carol Oates, America’s most prolific author, poet, playwright,
and Princeton University professor of humanities. This week, area
readers can enjoy what has become her annual appearance at Barnes
& Noble in MarketFair when she talks about her two most recent books,
"Middle Age: A Romance" and "Beasts," Wednesday,
January 30, at 7 p.m.
Last year, another banner year for Oates, she was at the store
speaking to a standing-room-only crowd. At the same time that
"Blonde," her imaginative account of the life of Marilyn
Monroe, was in the bookstores, her much earlier novel, "We Were
the Mulvaneys," was selected as an Oprah Winfrey book club
selection, sending the book to the top of the bestseller list and
Oates on to daytime TV. She shared her recent Oprah show experience
with the bookstore audience, marveling how women from across the
country whose family histories paralleled the Mulvaney story had
shared the broadcast discussion.
Oates also made a joint bookstore appearance, just over a year ago,
with controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer, now
her ally in opposing Princeton Borough’s deer culling project. Oates
has given book talks and signings at Micawber Books, Borders,
as well as talks at Princeton Adult School and Princeton Day School.
Oates is known for her work in all genres — most recently having
added science fiction to her love of the literary novel, the novella,
the romance, the short story, the horror story, poetry, plays, and
essays. She also wrote the libretto for the opera based on her novella
Oates’s latest novel, "Middle Age: A Romance" (Ecco; $28),
falls squarely into the first category. It’s a big, 450-page story
set in the prosperous community of Salthill-on-Hudson, a half-hour
train ride from Manhattan, where everyone is rich, attractive, and
middle aged. It is dedicated, with irony, "To my Princeton
friends, who are nowhere in these pages."
"Middle Age" is the story, told posthumously, of Adam Berendt,
a charismatic, mysterious sculptor, who dies suddenly in a July Fourth
accident while trying to rescue — he thinks — a drowning
child. At the same time the community mourns the artist’s death,
rumors arise about his possible lovers plunge his friends into grief,
confusion, and self reflection.
Various women who loved Adam find themselves engaging in life-altering
romantic adventures, and the men who were Adam’s closest friends
become utterly transformed. Augusta Cutler, a previously unreflective
woman, defiantly tries to solve the mystery of Adam’s origins, even if
it means losing both marriage and family.
Also new from Oates is the dark novella "Beasts," published
in October (Carroll & Graf; $15.95), and described as a cunning fusion
of Gothic romance and psychological horror story, centered on the
power of obsession.
Set at Catamount College for Women in the sex and
drug-drenched 1970s, it tells the story of Gillian Brauer, a student
who falls under the spell of her charismatic literature professor and
his sultry French wife, only to find her trust abused. The publisher
promises that readers will find "the sunny idyll of New England
college campus life [turned] into a lurid nightmare."
Nancy Nicholson, community relations coordinator at Barnes & Noble,
has lots of enthusiasm for author readings in general, and for Joyce
Carol Oates’s appearances in particular.
"This is a unique opportunity to interface with one of the most
prolific and renowned authors in the world," she says. "You
get her own personal insights into her inspiration and her writing
process. And in addition to being extremely articulate, she is very
personable — and funny, too."
Nicholson had just finished reading "Middle Age" which she
enjoyed so much she says she devoured it in just three days. "This
book is uplifting and funny," she says. "It probes the libido
of the middle-aged American — men and women — in a wonderful
way, and really shows how sensual and sexual a 50-year-old being can
"When you read as much as I do, I don’t often stop just because
I love an image. But toward the latter half of the book, she unleashes
similes and metaphors that no one else could come up with, they’re
just so funny."
Nicholson’s favorites include Oates’s memorable description of Mr.
Shad, owner of the crematorium, whose "black-dyed hair fitted
his head like a shiny shoe." And we meet Donegal Croom, an Irish
poet with a drinking problem: "Like a large, ungainly fish on its
tail, Donegal Croom is lead by Abigail into the noisy ballroom."
Nicholson always expects a big crowd for an Oates reading, but she
notes that the author, too, values the opportunity to find out what
her readers are thinking and what they want to know.
"Readers and authors come away from an hour with Joyce Carol Oates
having learned something, having been enlightened and motivated,"
The first biography of Oates, "Invisible Writer," was
by Greg Johnson in 1998. And for the interested Oates reader, there’s
an exemplary website. "Celestial Timepiece, A Joyce Carol Oates
Home Page." Begun in 1995, librarian Randy Souther continues
to enlarge and meticulously maintain it at
It has news, biography, photographs, works of criticism, an online
discussion group, and a 2,300-entry bibliography that includes titles
for 150 books of fiction, poetry, essays, and criticism authored by
— Nicole Plett
1 South, 609-897-9250. Free. Wednesday, January 30, 7 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.