Wonderland by Joyce Carol Oates


This book is for all of us who pursue phantasmagoria of personality

What is personality—can it be destroyed as the brain surgeon, Dr. Perrault, declared “with a tiny pin in my fingers.”—? The formation of personality according to the reciprocal determinism theory, an individual’s behavioral genetics and social environment and consequences have a direct impact on the formation of personality—and then there’s the idea that personality possesses the power of free will, personality is characterized by morality—there is more, but I’ll stop there, all of this makes my brain hurt, but I think about this stuff all the time, it fascinates me. The philosophical divides and resulting debates regarding our being human are all frustrating and wonderful—Free Will v. Determinism; Heredity v. Environment; Uniqueness v. Universality/ Active v. Reactive; Optimistic v. Pessimistic—They’re all right in their own way, yet at times a bit too certain of themselves. Goodness knows, I’m not an expert, but I can’t believe there is a rigid set of parameters that make up a personality in the “this is how it is because we say so”—you know, that sort of shit always makes me dig in and say “No fuckin’ way.” Some people just gotta have the Coke or Pepsi argument just for the sake of arguing about something—Good grief, if a little chocolate free will gets in your determinism peanut butter, let it be, it all ends up in the same place. (Trust me on this.)

Wonderland is an exploration of the personality—it is a book that I call a “human document.” The human being is such a complex character, a fascinating mystery—the first time I read Wonderland it was like riding a rocket to the moon. I remember being told that it was a “good one” and checked it out from the library—I tried to ignore the librarian’s gentle attempt to direct me toward something more age appropriate like the latest Walter Farley since it was well known that I loved horses—but it was not long after I read Dickens and Shakespeare in school, so I knew what I was looking for—I wanted “a good one”, something real. Seriously, I had trouble enough with reality since I spent a good amount of time inside my head, and the way things were at the time, well, sometimes it did not feel real. I wanted something to feed that gnawing sense of “I want more”; I wanted to go into the deep end of the pool where I had to be bigger to touch bottom—I’m not just talking about the physical “bigger”. I might’ve been around 14 or 15 when I put the weighty tome into the basket of my bike and rode off to somewhere quiet to read it. I had a favorite tree in the woods where no one would bother me. It was a fat book (which I did not find daunting at all.) It had a bright yellow dust jacket with the crinkly protective plastic cover—it had that special library book smell that went along with summer days. The book was shocking, it was terrifying, but it was fascinating—that “adult” forbidden fruit sort of thing that I gotten myself into when I was impressionable and testing the waters of life beyond childhood. The characters were real—too real—they were nightmarish monsters and selfishly up to no good—I couldn’t trust any of them to not cause harm or to make a disaster of every moment. I held my breath a lot, grinding my teeth sometimes. Some of what was going on went over my head as I found their adult actions to be baffling—yet I accepted all of it as the author’s intention and trusted her wisdom to tell the story as she saw fit—I leaned forward and read on. After I made my way through this novel, I knew there was no turning back. Dang—after reading it, I wanted to be a writer of such arcane things as personality and have spent years picking away at words of my own. I’ve been wanting to re-read Wonderland for a very long time, but didn’t want to until I accomplished writing something that I could call mine—I also didn’t want this monumental book to become something for me to navigate by—but nevertheless, it was there, a distant lighthouse, an encouraging reminder and a stern caution. Now that I have read it with the experienced eyes of someone who has delved into the mines to unearth my own “human documents” because of their exploration of ‘being’, I was actually surprised by it—and not just surprised by how much I had forgotten.  The magic is still there, but different for me now—it still gives me the chills in a good way; it’s just as frightening and nightmarish as ever, it is timeless, and ever so interesting—exploring the phantasmagoria of personality.

Did I tell you I love this book?