Book review: 'A Widow's Story' by Joyce Carol Oates

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

A Widow's Story

A Memoir

Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco: 418 pp., $27.99

When, at 6:15 a.m. on Feb. 11, 2008, Joyce Carol Oates saw her 77-year-old husband, Raymond Smith, eating breakfast, she did not — could not — know that he would be dead within a week. Still, she acknowledges in "A Widow's Story," her memoir of his death and its aftermath, she had the feeling that all was not right. "There is an hour, a minute — you will remember it forever — when you know instinctively on the basis of the most inconsequential evidence, that something is wrong," she observes.

A fastidious man, an academic and literary journal editor whom Oates met when they were both graduate students, Smith gave off little signals: He sat hunched, as if he were exhausted, and the tabletop was scattered with used tissues. "Something in the way in which these wet wadded tissues are scattered," Oates writes, "the slovenliness of it, the indifference, is not in Ray's character and not-right."That, in narrative terms, is the precipitating incident, "the first of a series of 'wrongful' events that will culminate," the author tells us, "in the utter devastation of your life as you have known it."

It's useful, in reading "A Widow's Story," to keep such strategies front and center because this is a highly constructed piece of work. For Oates, as for Joan Didion — Oates' book superficially resembles Didion's 2005 memoir of widowhood "The Year of Magical Thinking" — the key to coping with tragedy is to engage with it, to seek in the logic of language some of the order that has been stripped from daily life.

Oates, however, also understands the inherent futility of that effort, its inability to mitigate the loss. "It is amazing to me," she reflects, "how others wish to believe me so resilient, so — energized.... Mornings when I can barely force myself out of bed, long days when I am virtually limping with exhaustion, and my head ringing in the aftermath of an insomniac night, yet the joshing-jocular exclamations are cast on me like soiled bits of confetti — how infuriating, the very vocabulary of such taunts — Writing up a storm, eh?"

The reference, of course, is to Oates' vaunted prolificacy; she has published more than 100 books, as well as countless reviews, essays and magazine pieces, starting with her first collection of short fiction, "By the North Gate," in 1963. And yet, among the most surprising aspects of "A Widow's Story" is how quickly literature deserts her in the wake of Smith's death of complications from pneumonia. "In fact," she notes, "I am not able to write fiction any longer, except haltingly.… For weeks I labored on a single short story, that was finally completed last week. Of the many ideas for stories that assail my brain when the Cymbalta-haze lifts there is not one that I feel I can execute."

Here we confront the tension that "A Widow's Story" embodies — between the drive to tell stories, on the one hand, and the uselessness of stories as a consolation. It's a starkly oppositional perspective, and it helps to highlight the other oppositions that motivate the book. There's the pull between Joyce Carol Oates the author ("In this posthumous state my career — all that has to do with 'Joyce Carol Oates' — has come to seem remote to me, faintly absurd, or sinister") and Joyce Carol Smith, the widow, keeper of her husband's memory. There's the struggle to know and the frustration of not knowing, the awful recognition that, even after 47 years of marriage, much remains fundamentally enigmatic about those we love. Equally essential is a certain opposition of form: a memoir by a writer who prides herself on being private, who has never written such a book before.

"This," Oates writes, "is the era of 'full disclosure.' The memoirist excoriates him-/herself, as if in a parody of public penitence, assuming then that the excoriation, exposure, humiliation of others is justified. I think that this is unethical, immoral. Crude and cruel and unconscionable." And then, in the next paragraph: "As the memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, so the memoir is the most dangerous of literary genres. For the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can't be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze."

What makes these oppositions important is their connection to grief, which is, for Oates, a matter of derangement, in which truth (to the extent that we can ever see it) is in a constantly fluid state. At times, she imagines her husband as not dead but elsewhere, as if he'd left the house. At others, the finality of his absence is so crushing that she contemplates suicide. She quotes Camus and Nietzsche, Hemingway and Kafka, trying to build a rational frame around this least rational of experiences; even as she confides in us, she recoils against the intimacy it requires.

The dislocation is most affecting when it comes to her description of their marriage. She was only 22 when she married Smith and inexperienced in the world. Their courtship was brief — three months — but their marriage was built on a comfortable routine. Or was it? As "A Widow's Story" develops, the question grows increasingly prominent. "Most of my novels and short stories," Oates reflects, "were never read by my husband. He did read my non-fiction essays and my reviews … but he did not read most of my fiction and in this sense it might be argued that Ray didn't know me entirely — or even, to a significant degree, partially." As for her side, she is just as pitiless: "What is frightening is, maybe I never knew him. In some essential way, I never knew my husband.… For I had known my husband — as he'd allowed himself to be known, but the man who'd been my husband — Ray Smith, Raymond Smith, Raymond J. Smith — has eluded me."

There is, of course, a certain irony to this, because Smith was a literary figure in his own right: the founder and longtime editor of the Ontario Review. Still, in the context of the memoir, it is not irony but desperation we are left with, a despair so all-consuming that we wonder how Oates — how anyone — can survive. "The widow doesn't want change," she writes. "The widow wants the world — time — to have ended." Faced with that, Oates wants us to recognize, stories can take us only so far.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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