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.