Sunday 18 February 2018

Review: A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Fourth Estate, €23.99

Author Joyce Carol Oates
TESTAMENT OF GRIEF: Author Joyce Carol Oates

When Joyce Carol Oates penned her sprawling memoir of the period after her husband's death -- A Widow's Story -- she earned instant comparisons to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and mostly positive reviews.

The book had some of Didion's ice-cool fury but the narrative of a scholarly (and self-dramatising) woman suddenly bereft was the same. Oates wrote of her thoughts of suicide after her husband's death. She could not imagine a future without him; with him in a cold grave, she could not sleep warm.

Then, via a few interviews and one excoriating review in The New York Times, it emerged that Oates had, in fact, pulled herself together with unseemly haste; she had remarried a little more than a year after her husband's death and well before the publication of her memoir, in which, over the course of 400-plus pages, her new man is not once mentioned. Oates responded to questions about this by pointing out that widows often remarry, which is true. But the suspicion that the whole exercise had been insincere was unavoidable. In the aftermath of James Frey's and JT LeRoy's fabricated tales, we expect our memoirists to have lived what they write. We refuse to allow the dancer to separate herself from the dance.

Having read A Widow's Story, however, I would say that questions of sincerity are not really Oates' primary problem. It's not that the grief and the loss depicted in this book aren't real. She may in fact have been so distraught that she fell too quickly into the arms of another -- the grief and the need to move on are not mutually exclusive.

No, Oates' problem is more to do with the length of this book and the lack of depth in its central relationship. It begins, for us, with a near-miss car crash in which Oates and her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, narrowly escape death. In hindsight, she regards it as kind of dark forewarning -- just over a year later, he would be lying in hospital, deathly ill with pneumonia. His passing prompts a meditation of life and death, and the need to go on.

Never do we learn what made their relationship tick. Never does she delve into how he -- a writer and editor -- reacted to her becoming the literary celebrity of the family. He called her "honey" she tells us, as though that were something unusual in America. She gives us details of the things he would like or not like, but he remains a stoic, remote figure throughout the book -- her dark marauder to be sure (she even confuses him with her father in a dream), but always "elliptical," even to the reader.

There are mundane details of death -- dealing with nurses, making arrangements with undertakers, presenting officialdom with the death certificate -- that will always be full of pathos for those who have to take care of them.

However, Oates pores over every piece of minutiae here with something approaching a pathology. Every line strains for metaphorical significance and, somehow, at her blackest moments, lines from works of literature (such as Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain) come to her.

Like Didion, she has a mania for using antiquated parts of speech, and the quotes, the self-consciously ornate sentence construction, the almost forensic detail (she must have been diarising furiously -- with an eye to what?) all detract greatly from this portrait of loss. Her grief is scholarly (although, to be fair, not as dry as Didion's), and she and her circle of friends -- who send pate and truffles by way of condolence -- are hard to relate to. Either way, readers can expect to remain resolutely dry-eyed.

For someone as prolific as Oates -- her oeuvre is probably more daunting than any other celebrated living author -- such a cataclysmic event as a death in the family must have seemed a compelling topic. But like a badly produced reality TV show (which Oates would never watch -- she admonishes a nurse about watching television at one point) the seams show all too often here. And the news that everything turned out all right for the newly married Oates is scant consolation for anyone who made it through this.

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