A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates – review
When Joyce Carol Oates lost her husband after 47 years together, she could not bear to talk about it. Her unflinching memoir of widowhood more than makes up for the silence
oyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Story has a spine as broad as the side of an average gravestone. What, you think as you pick it up, could she possibly find to fill so many pages? And how risky to be joining the crowd of widows who have already written about their losses, including Natascha McElhone, Barbara Want and Joan Didion – a friend of Oates's – whose The Year of Magical Thinking, a slender account of grief and its superstitious side-effects, became a bestseller. There is also a danger attached to the structure of Oates's book. Her husband, Raymond Smith, died on 18 February 2008, of a secondary infection after contracting pneumonia. He was 77, editor of the Ontario Review, a literary journal. His death was dramatic. Yet within 60 pages he is gone – and the book is more than 400 pages long. What is going to happen now? But that is also Joyce Carol Oates's question. It is every widow's question. And it is her brilliant achievement to take us through the wasteland, the non-story that follows in a way that is as gripping as any thriller. Length barely registers, except as a measure of her love and grief. This is one of the most compelling books I have read in a long time. One is with her, every inch of the way, as if her story were one's own.
|oyce Carol Oates and her late husband Raymond Smith, in 1972. Photograph: Bernard Gotfryd|
The structure is a sort of scrapbook: everything is grist to the widow's mill, drifts of email, a short obituary from the New York Times, extracts from letters of condolence, a compliments slip, laboriously composed, with which to return submissions to the Ontario Review (which ceased with its editor). In brief italicised stretches, she writes about "the widow" in the third person to create distance from which to comment. In the first-person narrative, there is no such distance. For most people in crisis, detail – the small print of experience – is erased by shock. But Oates's memory is exceptional.
Grief sends it into overdrive. This book about loss turns out to be a triumph of retention. Every detail of her last visit to Ray is remembered. One sees the hospital in the small hours, with its darkened cafe and unmanned information desk and the lift that takes Oates helplessly up to the fifth floor where she will find Ray already dead. They had been married for 47 years.
Nor does she forget the unkindess of strangers (a Blanche Du Bois in reverse). After abandoning her car hastily outside the hospital, she returns to a handwritten note on her windscreen: "LEARN TO PARK STUPID BITCH". And on the day of Ray's death, at a point where she could not be more vulnerable, she asks a nurse to recommend a funeral home. The nurse frowns, tells her to consult the Yellow Pages. The world, Oates reminds us, is indifferent to personal calamity. Life goes messily on: one of her cats urinates over Ray's death certificate.
|Joyce Carol Oates|
A Widow's Story sounds Chaucerian. And at one point, Oates describes the book as a "pilgrimage". The search is for identity (hers and Ray's). She sees loss as an escalating thing. She starts to fear "maybe I never knew him". She wonders if she knows herself: "We have no personalities unless there are people who know us. Unless there are people we hope to convince that we deserve to exist." Her capacity for suffering edges towards self-annihilation. Nor does she spare herself the assorted torments of hindsight. But she continues to work (although not, for a time, to write fiction). "Joyce Carol Oates" appears as her alter ego, the successful author of 115 books, existing in the narrative like a useful change of clothes, distinct from the more familiar Joyce Smith. But it is not clear the writer knows either of these women. In one sense, the book recalls Candia McWilliam's superb memoir What to Look For in Winter. Writing, in both books, is a means of making oneself visible to oneself.
In interviews, Oates comes across as a defended person. It is fascinating to have this unguarded glimpse of her: warm, gracious, funny, neurotic – and, usually, sleepless. It is heartening to like her so much, sad she doesn't like herself more. Her portrait of her marriage is intriguing, too. She and Ray were unfailingly nice to one another. But here is the oddity: Ray never read a word of her fiction. "In this sense it might be argued that Ray didn't know me entirely or even, to a significant degree, partially." Nor did she read his unfinished novel, Black Mass until after his death (two chapters, considering his Irish Catholic background, are devoted to it).
Oates writes especially well about their marital home: its mix of consolation and desolation. After Ray's death, she cannot move his books from the coffee table and does not, for months, erase his message from their answer phone. The living room has lost its life. She lives in the house as if editing it, cutting out her husband's study – its almost-occupancy too much to bear. But then just about everything, in the year after Ray's death, is too much to bear. Other people, even the most loving, are often a challenge (although friends like the writer Edmund White are buttresses). Unlike many a widow, she prefers people not to talk about her husband. She can barely read the letters of condolence she receives. She writes with black comedy about a "sympathy siege" in which well-intentioned, indecently lavish "gourmet sympathy baskets" (an American idea?) pile up. She zooms in, with grim relish, on a "Gourmet Riviera Pear – unnaturally large, tasteless, stately as a waxen fruit in a nineteenth-century still-life". She describes a wilting miniature rose she plans to save. It comes with the instruction: "Important: Decorative plant mosses should not be eaten" to which she observes: "A widow may be deranged, but a widow is not that deranged."
This book is a response to those letters she could not face. It is an answer to the stark "how are you?" that always wrong-footed her. ("Who are you?" remains ambiguous). The book's solace springs out of its comfortlessness. It is strange – and marvellous – that loneliness should have produced such a good companion. And it is gladdening to discover – read carefully or you'll miss it – that there is now a new man in Joyce Carol Oates's life. He enters discreetly and without a name, in a single sentence, on the last but one page.