Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A widow's toast

I think of Joyce Carol Oates as a combination of Pola Negri and Superwoman. Oates looks incredibly fragile in her photographs - birdlike, with giant dark eyes - but she's a writing powerhouse. She's written over fifty novels. Fifty! Not bad for a woman who got turned down for a bunch of teaching jobs in the Beaumont, Texas school district after moving there in the early 1960s (some things never change - Texas' educational system is as craptastic as ever).

A Widow's Story chronicles the year after Oates' husband, Raymond Smith, died unexpectedly, and it's simultaneously like and unlike her other works: like in that even in the grip of grief, Oates never loses her sharply honed skill, and unlike in that one gets the sense that Oates is being brutally honest about her dissolution from focused, disciplined writer to hapless widow.
Oates and Smith met at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where both were students, and spent the next 47 years together. Smith never published any of his own work, instead, he founded and edited The Ontario Review (Joyce co-edited). Interestingly, Smith hardly ever read Joyce's work and didn't edit it. Unlike other husband-and-wife author teams, Oates writes that she didn't share her work with Smith because she preferred not to share anything depressing or upsetting with him. And if you know your Oates, her writing is not some fuzzy beach read.

A Widow's Story opens with Oates admonishing her husband to visit the ER after complaining of difficulty breathing and pain in his chest. She drives him to the ER, through an intersection where they had a car accident a year earlier, musing on how fortunate they are to have survived. Smith is diagnosed with pneumonia, and the doctors expect him to recover quickly and fully. Instead, he contracts a secondary infection (most likely from the hospital) and quickly declines, dying a few days after being admitted. Oates intersperses her narrative with excerpts from e-mails she written to friends, first and heartbreakingly assuring them that Smith is fine and will be released soon, then later to tell them that he's died.

What follows is a year of grief, as Oates struggles to adjust to Smith's absence, resume her work, and accept her new identity as a widow. With her characteristic eye for detail, Oates writes of furiously discarding baskets of food and flowers that flood her house after Smith's death, shoving the cellophane-covered baskets of chocolate and nuts into the trash can, wrestling the cans up to the street, a task that Smith had always done. Oates stops writing for a time, shutters The Ontario Review, and begins withdrawing from her friends. She goes on and off sleeping medication and antidepressants, at one point arranging her pills on the tabletop and contemplating killing herself. Anyone who has experienced a similar loss with understand, intimately, the minute-by-minute rollercoaster that Oates describes: proud of herself for summoning up the courage to go grocery shopping, only to dissolve into tears when the cashier inquires about her husband; managing to go back to the gym they went to together; then hastily cancelling their membership without explaining why to the bewildered desk clerk. Bereaved readers will also recognize how friends pull away in the presence of grief, planning dinner parties that never happen, telling others how desperately they wish to comfort their friend, without ever calling or writing them directly.

A Widow's Story has no plot, per se, but Oates still adopts some of the methods that make her fiction work so gripping and stomach-churning. In Oates' novels and short stories, her female characters are often in peril, menaced by larger forces, disoriented, bewildered, lost, and so is Oates: coming out of the hospital where Smith has been admitted, Oates finds LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH written on a note on her windshield, the first hint that the world will be more bruising without Smith. Her struggle with the state bureaucracy after Smith's death is conveyed flawlessly, from the ticket she receives for not being the registered owner of their car to the difficulty of handling the minutiae required to receive a death certificate without screaming or wailing. Oates later mined this experience for one of her most unsettling stories, "Probate," published in her collection of short works in 2011, Sourland.

Oates remarried a year after Smith's death, to a neuroscientist she met at a dinner party six months after Smith died. She doesn't write about this in A Widow's Story. Instead, Oates focuses on the questions that swirl around her in the aftermath of Smith's death, as she reads his unfinished novel, Black Mass, for the first time. Had she been unsupportive? Should she have asked him to read her work? Had Smith sacrificed a potential career as a writer to support hers instead? Did keeping her work so separate from him make their marriage less authentic, more guarded?

What emerges is a portrait not only of a bereft widow but also a record of a deep and loving partnership. As one of Oates friends tells her with characteristics bluntness, suffer for Ray. He was worth it.

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