My Heart Laid Bare is a striking departure for Joyce Carol Oates: a sweeping epic novel of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising confidence artists in 19th-century America. Mythic in scope, it is Oates's most daring work yet—a stunning tale of crime and transgression, and of a mysterious and tragic woman whose secret history resonates from one century to another—with profound moral consequences.
"I am a paragon of manhood. A gentleman-stallion in the prime of my life. A man of sparing charm, sly with secrets, flushed with modesty. Am I like other men? I am not."
The time is 1891. The man is Abraham Licht, a confidence artist who has arrived in Muirkirk to establish his criminal dynasty: Thurston and Harwood, the sons who emulate their dashing father—only to be drawn into murder; beautiful Millicent, her father's equal in The Game, his superior in the more dangerous game of familial control; and Elisha—the adopted son—Abraham's true heir in talent and ambition, cruelly banished from his father's affections. Like a biblical patriarch, Licht sees his immortality in his children. But his own mortality lies in the far-off, forgotten past, in lady's maid Sarah Licht. Masquerading as nobility in stolen jewels and finery in 18th-century England, exiled to America to avoid the hangman's noose, she would undergo many transformations—belle of the Carolinas, widow, governess, and midwife-before meeting her fate in the marshy wilds of Old Muirkirk.
It is Sarah's spirit that haunts their story, as Abraham and his clan move with consummate ease through the newly expanding country, from scheme to dazzling scheme. Caught between the ghosts of the past and those that await him in the future, Abraham will live to see the dark, unholy secrets of the soul bared at last, as brother turns against brother, lover against lover, blood against blood.
From the virgin provinces of New York State to the rough-and-tumble western frontier ... from the political backrooms of Washington, D.C., to the Atlantic City of the Gilded Age ... from Carnegie Hall to Harlem in the twenties and thirties, My Heart Laid Bare is a sumptuous, sinuous novel of ingenious invention—one imbued with a mesmerizing narrative voice. At its center is an unforgettable family, as strongly possessed of the power to deceive as they are of the power to love.
The Catechism of Abraham Licht
Crime? Then complicity.
Complicity? Then no crime.
No crime? Then no criminal.
No criminal? Then no remorse.
All men are our enemies, as they are strangers.
Brothers and sisters by blood are brothers and sisters by the soul.
Do you doubt, children? You must never doubt!
To doubt is to already lose The Game.
Covet where you wish, but never in vain.
Would this earthly globe were but the size of an apple, that it might be plucked, devoured!
(By one who has the courage to pluck, and to bite hard.)
You cannot measure a live wolf.
Past?—but the graveyard of Future.
Future?—but the womb of Past.
It is never enough to have confidence in oneself; one must be the means of confidence in others.
The first refuge of the clever man is God—their God.
The final refuge of the clever man is God—our God.
Never discover a strategy if another can be made to imagine he has discovered it.
The world has been divided into fools and knaves?—yes, more precisely into fools, knaves, and those who so divide the world.
To penetrate another's heart is to conquer it.
To penetrate another's soul is to acquire it.
Pity?—why, then cowardice.
Remorse?—why, then defeat.
Guilt?—the fool's luxury.
A gentleman will not soil his gloves, but will soil his hands.
A lady will not reveal her secret, except for the right price.
To us who are pure, all things are pure.
No success without another's failure.
No failure without another's success.
To feel another's pain is defeat.
To turn the other cheek, a betrayal.
In Aesop, the foolish vixen boasts of her numerous progeny and challenges the lioness how many offspring she has had. The proud lioness says, "Only one—but a lion."
The Game must never be played as if it were but a Game.
Nor the Game-board traversed as if it were but the "world."
Out of Muirkirk mud, a lineage to conquer Heaven.
To suck marrow, children, is our nourishment.
To suck marrow, yet be heaped with gratitude.
Yet never seduced, children, by the music of your own voice.
Control, control, and again control: and what prize will not be ours?
Die for a whim—if it is your own.
Honor is the secret subject of all catechisms.
For where there is love there can be no calulation.
For where there is calculation there can be no love.
And where The Game is abandoned, mere mortality awaits.
"As above, so below"—all on Earth is ordained.
And where ordained, blameless.
For, children, I say unto you—
Crime? Then complicity.
Complicity? Then no crime.
And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness becomes light.
- Booklist, April 15, 1998, p. 1357
- Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1998, p. 45
- Kirkus Reviews, May 11, 1998
- Library Journal, May 15, 1998, p. 116
- Book Page Online, June 1998
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7, 1998
- San Diego Union-Tribune Books, June 7, 1998, p. 1
- The Sun (Baltimore, MD), June 7, 1998, p. 13F
- People, June 8, 1998, p. 49
- News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 14, 1998, p. G4
- Orlando Sentinel, June 14, 1998, p. F11
- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, June 14, 1998, p. 4
- New York Times, June 16, 1998, p. B7
- Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1998, p. B7
- USA Today, June 25, 1998, p. 9D
- Salon Magazine, June 26, 1998
- Globe and Mail, June 27, 1998, p. D16
- Boston Globe, June 28, 1998, p. C3
- Dallas Morning News, July 5, 1998, p. 8J
- New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1998, p. 6
- Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 12, 1998, p. 7
- Grand Rapids Press, July 19, 1998, p. J7
- Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 19, 1998, p. F4
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 26, 1998, p. 2
- Chicago Tribune Books, August 2, 1998
- Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 1999, pp. 487-495
If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple—a few plain words—"My Heart Laid Bare." But this little book must be true to its title. No man dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.
—Edgar Allan Poe, 1848
My Heart Laid Bare was the fourth novel published in the "Gothic Series."
"The opportunity might not be granted me again, I thought, to create a highly complex structure in which individual novels (themselves complex in design, made up of 'books') functioned as chapters or units in an immense design: America as viewed through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres." —Joyce Carol Oates, 1985
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
- International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 2000: Longlist