A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

March 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Receiving a parking ticket while welcoming a new baby or rushing to say goodbye to a loved one seems surprisingly common, at least anedcotally, but must always be a horrible shock for the person coming out of the hospital in a daze. The incomprehensibility of such a parking ticket (actually a few days before the death of her husband Raymond Smith in 2008) is how Joyce Carol Oates opens her fine book of grief,  A Widow’s Story–except that the paper fluttering on her windscreen turns out to be not a ticket, but a note saying “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.”

This incident leads the reader into the memoir fully on Oates’ side (although her other remarks about driving might throw some light on the notewriter’s frustration). The obvious comparison for this work is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. A Widow’s Story is more intimate than Didion’s book, as if Didion wrote it in the immediate grip of shock while Oates is rather remembering (vividly) the dreadful horror of turning from a married woman into a widow. The book is over 400 pages, and the account of Ray’s illness and death is over before page 60, which leaves a lot of space for grief. Too much space, perhaps, for the person who isn’t going through it; a good reminder for those of us not mourning a loss that a death fills up all available space in the bereaved person’s mind for months, even when we might be eager to start talking about something else.

Oates is distraught at being a widow as much as at the loss of her husband–being a widow means living alone in a big empty house; it means having to work out which day to put the rubbish bins out at the kerb. She seems to have been protected by Ray from much of the business of living, and talks about how they deliberately did not share bad news with each other. An unusual relationship, then: for all its insular coupleness, they lacked huge amounts of information about each other. The story becomes stranger as we learn that Ray didn’t even read Oates’ fiction; during the course of the memoir Oates reads (and is startlingly obtuse or disingenuous in her interpretation of its autobiographical nature) Ray’s unpublished novel. The (unmentioned) fact that Oates remarried a little over a year after Ray’s death puts rather a different slant on the memoir as a structured piece of creative non-fiction, although not necessarily on the Smiths’ relationship: it is clear from A Widow’s Story that Oates wants to be looked after, and what better way than by finding a new husband?

Can raw and honest writing about grief be compatible with the structural demands of storytelling?


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