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Vol. LXV, No. 7
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
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Book Review

Look, She Has Come Through: Joyce Carol Oates’s Dark Odyssey

Stuart Mitchner

I was about to hand in this column when I read Janet Maslin’s Valentine’s Day massacre of A Widow’s Story in Monday’s New York Times. Operating under the misleadingly neutral head, “The Shock of Losing a Spouse,” Maslin feels empowered to take out her hatchet as soon she informs us that the author had the temerity to become “happily engaged” to another man a mere 11 months after her husband’s death. To point out in detail how maliciously the reviewer goes about her dirty work would take more time than I have at this point. All I can do is suggest that people get the book and see for themselves. Maslin’s piece is a new low in book reviewing, which is saying a lot.

First heard at 12:38 a.m. in a telephone call from an anonymous male at the Princeton Medical Center, “Your husband is still alive” is one of the most painful and poignant sentences in Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story (Ecco $27.99).

The same sentence comes around again as the title of the book’s haunting last chapter, with its account of the author’s “purely chance” first meeting with Ray Smith at the University of Wisconsin student union. The last chapter’s seven paragraphs put 48 years and 25 days of marriage on the head of a pin. We’ve already been there as readers, we know how and where the couple met, we have some knowledge of their home life, habits, occupations, their two cats, their terms of endearment. We know how and where the marriage ended, with Ray Smith’s death that same night, three years ago this Friday, February 18, 2008. What makes the chapter special is the emotional momentum created by the epic of loss that the author has been meditating on, enduring, reliving with an insistence that at times resembles a mantra of grief.

No less striking is the coda of the two-part epilogue, a night’s sleep passed without medication, the discovery of something small and lost in the driveway after another “purely chance meeting” on the way to a new life.

When the author hears that voice in the night — in effect, the voice of the Medical Center summoning her to the hospital “quickly! quickly!” — it’s the culmination of a lifelong dread “of the phone ringing late — or at the wrong time. We all know this dread. There is no escape from this dread.”

Local Loomings

The wife’s dread gives a darker edge to place names and street names that will be familiar to local residents reading Oates’s account of the frantic night drive in a “ghost-white” Honda “along Elm Ridge Road — onto Carter Road and left onto Rosedale” leading “straight into the Borough of Princeton,” the “roads dark, snow-edged,” deserted, with “shadowy figures” appearing “in the periphery” of the driver’s vision (she’s afraid of “being struck by a deer), and the long wait for the red light to change at the corner of Hodge Road and 206, and then, finally, the big building on Witherspoon Street.

If you live in the area, there’s a chance you’ve been to the same emergency room, or have kept a vigil by someone’s bedside, or have arrived too late after a call in the night. So significantly does the Medical Center figure in A Widow’s Story, so central is it, you might imagine that the book has given a sort of immortality to the building that will assume another identity when the immensely expanded replacement on the other side of U.S. 1 opens its doors next year. On the other hand, the author’s concerns about the staff’s handling of her husband’s case may give the Medical Center a certain unwanted celebrity. At one point, the “widow-to-be” thinks that “even as she believes she is behaving intelligently,” she is consigning her husband to “a teeming petri dish of lethal bacteria where within a week he will succumb to a virulent staph infection — a ‘hospital’ infection acquired in the course of his treatment for pneumonia” (her italics).

Didion’s Loss

The book with which A Widow’s Story will inevitably attract comparison is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf 2005). The abruptness of Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne’s death (“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends”) precludes the hospital issues that haunt Oates’s memoir. In any case, Didion is selective while Oates offers an abundance of detail. These differing approaches would seem to agree with the stereotype of Didion as the cool minimalist and Oates as the prolific, heavyweight word-slinger. Didion’s book is 227 pages long, actually quite a bit shorter than that because of the open-spaced typography. A Widow’s Story weighs in at 416 big closely-packed pages.

The odd thing is that while Oates seems to be giving us everything she has, including numerous email messages to friends and University colleagues, Didion’s more crafted narrative contains occasional uncalled for digressions. Both writers go into detail about the personal effects brought home from the hospital, except that Didion specifically identifies the contents of her husband’s wallet, from his Chase-IBM card to his Metro card. Later on, remembering a song he liked to parody, she quotes the entire Princeton Alumni Weekly obituary of the song’s composer. Oates never strays from her presence at the heart of the story, continually reflecting back on the title by writing of herself as “the widow.” When Didion mentions the novel Dunne had sent to press just before his death, she repeats the names of every character who died in it. Oates’s inventories are strictly personal, no list for list’s sake; for her, repetition is a weapon employed to enforce emotionally or socially conflicted states in unsparing detail.

The Sourland Solution

The first two chapters of A Widow’s Story contain hints of the bluntly physical reimagining of the situation Oates will undertake in the title story of her collection, Sour-land (Ecco 2010). Oates’s receptivity to malice is apparent in the memoir’s first chapter, when the “widow-to-be” returns to her hastily parked car “on a narrow side street” near the Medical Center to find a nasty note about her poor parking (one tire over the white line) stuck on the windshield (after reading Janet Maslin’s malicious review, it’s hard not to see the note as an embryonic hatchet job). Although her reaction to the insult (“stuppid bitch”) is extreme (she reads it “with stunned, staring eyes … like one faltering on the brink of an abyss”), the point she takes from it is constructive (not to “overstep the boundaries of others, especially strangers”). It also gives her an opportunity to allude to one of her favorite authors by citing Kafka’s parable about how “a passer-by” may reveal “the most profound and devastating truth” (her italics) of a person’s life.

“Car Wreck,” the second chapter of A Widow’s Story anticipates the bludgeoning physicality of “Sourland.” In the collision, which occurred at a familiar Princeton intersection (Elm and Rosedale) a year and seven weeks before Ray Smith’s death, his “face, shoulders, chest, and arms had been battered [by the impact of the exploding air bag] as if he’d been the hapless sparring partner of a heavyweight boxer”; for Oates, her “bruised chest, ribs, and arms would be so painful” that she “could barely move without wincing.”

The combination of menace and pain in those opening chapters is taken to the limit in “Sourland,” where the widow goes to the “brink of an abyss” by putting herself at the mercy of a mysterious, disfigured stranger who is eventually revealed to be a college friend of her late husband. The transition from the real-life widow to the fictional victim Oates achieves is both fascinating and unpleasant to behold. It’s as if after submitting her darker urges to a comparatively temperate narrative of loss, in which the full fury of her art had to be held at arm’s length, Oates has uncaged and set loose her Gothic muse. The muse she follows in A Widow’s Story is more Lawrentian than Gothic. After I finished the book, I thought of Look, We Have Come Through, a collection of poems about Lawrence’s elopement and honeymoon with Frieda Weekley. Just as Lawrence came through the metamorphosis of that relationship, Oates writes her way through the metamorphosis of grieving.

Joyce Carol Oates is scheduled to read from A Widow’s Story at the 92nd Street Y in New York at 8 p.m. on Monday, February 21. She will be at the F Montgomery Auditorium of the Free Library of Philadelphia on March 8 at 7:30 p.m.

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