Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Widow's Story, by Joyce Carol Oates

Last year, in reviewing Kay Redfield Jamison's book about her husband's death, I suggested that she might have been better off distilling the best of her book into an article, holding up the piece by Joyce Carol Oates that had recently appeared in The Atlantic as an exemplar. Sadly, I would now like to give the same advice to Oates herself, as her book A Widow's Story is less effective as a whole than were the parts previously read.

Oates and her husband Raymond Smith, editor of the Ontario Review, had been happily married for nearly 50 years when he died suddenly in February 2008. The book describes her response to his brief illness and death. Certainly, the time was hideously painful for her--she writes at length about the attraction of suicide--and one cannot but feel compassion for her as she struggles to sleep, to deal with the "widow's death duties," to survive this cataclysm in her life. The book describes a very harrowing four months in Oates's life.

While it is taken as a given that writing about one's life at some moment of terrible personal crisis is brave, I'm not sure it is always well-advised. Some of what emerges about Oates is not flattering. While in sections of the book (including, if memory serves, in parts reproduced in The Atlantic) she writes about how the support of friends was important to her, she also critiques friends in unattractive ways. While out to dinner with friends, she wonders why they must discuss Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama incessantly--really, what does she expect them to talk about? She says in other places that she does not want to talk on and on about Ray's death. So??? Her friends are there for her--perhaps she should give them a break. She refers to Joan Didion as a friend (without naming her), but is rather snide about Didion's book Year of Magical Thinking. Why would she call it narcissistic for Didion to write about her husband's death when she herself is writing a similar book? She refers several times--with irritation--to the frequent description of her as "prolific"--given the context, why does this matter to her or to readers?

The portrayal of her marriage is also somewhat troubling. While she talks of how happy they were, Ray had not read her fiction--they worked side by side in the evenings but did not talk about the novels she was writing. Indeed, she talks about her persona as Joyce Carol Oates as somehow extraneous to her life as Joyce Smith. For two people wrapped up in work and literature, this seems like a severe limitation on their intimacy. Neither had Ray told her much about his childhood, although she clearly recognized that it had marked him in ways she did not understand. What is perhaps most disturbing is that, when she finally makes herself read the notes and drafts for a novel he had set aside years ago, she shares information about his family and past that one can only surmise he wanted to remain private.

And, finally, I could not abide one of the "writerly" touches Oates inserted. At the end of many chapters were paragraphs, set in italics and referring to herself as "the Widow-to-Be" or "the Widow."

One thing that I tried not to let influence me was the fact that Oates remarried scarcely a year after Ray's death--but I fear I may not have been successful. While I do not begrudge her a second marriage, I wonder why this book seemed necessary, especially given her comments about Didion's book.

Favorite passage:

Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigree dogs--a French bulldog, for instance--poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.

Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin's observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likelihood of extinction.

Teaching--even the teaching of writing--is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy--a reaching-out--a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students, a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one's soul.

Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche--so Chaucer says of his young scholar in the Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.

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