Standing By Words
Reconstructing the Garden
It seems odd that a heavyweight writer like Joyce Carol Oates would republish her early novel A Garden of Earthly Delights in a rewritten version—as if to undo her own past. Revision is nothing new. Nineteenth-century novelists made changes to each subsequent edition; one scholar has argued that Mary Shelley drastically altered Frankenstein’s 1831 edition to suggest that the monster is not corrupted by society but is evil from the beginning. (Compare the fanboy arguments over whether we must drastically revise our conception of Han Solo, now that the various Star Wars special editions demonstrate that Greedo shot first.)
We’re also familiar with the practice of publishing early drafts of well-known works, from Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby to Stephen King’s The Stand. These versions, though, are plainly intended as supplements, fodder for fans and scholars—like the multiple edits of cult films that exist side-by-side on a DVD. Oates’ rewritten Garden, like Henry James’ late revisions or, again, the almost universally despised Star Wars special edition, is offered to us as a replacement: Oates argues that her younger self lacked the craft to tell the story properly. But older, more experienced writers have a countervailing tendency to disappear into their own mannerisms, as a comparison of the two versions of Garden’s first chapter demonstrates. The young Oates presents her character, Carleton Walpole, from the outside, describing his appearance with striking precision and imagery (“… one’s muscles stiffened involuntarily at the violence this man hinted at, without knowing. … He had inherited someone’s grace—though in him it was simply an opaque resistance”); the mature Oates moves these lines to the middle of a paragraph, subtly de-emphasizing them, and gives us greater access to Walpole’s interior monologue Unfortunately, Oates’s long-established habit of speaking for her characters—by means of long, tangled sentences meant to imitate rhythms of thought, and by pop-culture references (the revised Walpole ruminates about boxer Jack Dempsey)—doesn’t individuate them as sharply as she thinks it does, and the unrevised Walpole emerges, at least in this chapter, as a more memorable figure.
Ethical issues arise as well, when an author takes away the book we’ve known and leaves a doppelganger in its place: the artist’s ownership of her creation on one hand, and the disruption of a settled relationship between work and reader on the other. Ultimately, what is our view of the relationship between art and time? Do we make art in order to overwhelm contingency, laboring our way to a timeless perfection in which the stupidity of our various chronological selves is finally effaced? Or are the marks of a work’s contingency a part of its loveliness? Adam Gopnik writes: “Though we’re taught to search for ‘timelessness’ in art, it is life that is truly timeless … It is art that puts a time in place. … The gift [art] gives us is a reminder that the big sludgy river of time exists first as moments. It gives us back our afternoons.”