Joyce Carol Oates's "A Widow's Story"

Valerie Sayers
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:42 AM


A Memoir

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco. 415 pp. $27.99

Is it perverse to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of widowhood is as enthralling as it is painful? Oates has always focused her writing so intensely that virtually all her prose is compelling, but this brave account of her recent grief seems composed with something close to abandon. It is as if Oates has decided, after the sudden death of her husband of 48 years, that her own inclination toward privacy is no longer important.

And so she gives her readers a searing account of the months following Raymond Smith's surprising death from a secondary infection acquired in the Princeton Medical Center, where he was being treated for a virulent form of pneumonia. He was recovering well and planning his imminent return home, when he was stricken again. Oates was called to his bedside in the middle of the night. By the time she arrived, he was dead.

Oates is outraged that her husband has in some sense become a victim of medical care, but far more wrenching is the guilt that overtakes her: Why did she insist on going to the hospital, where he acquired this new infection, instead of waiting for a doctor's appointment? How could she have stopped obediently at a red light while her beloved lay dying? She replays key scenes - we hear the voice on the other end of the phone summoning her to return immediately to her husband's side, watch her approach the hospital bed over and over - yet each iteration feels crucial.

It is characteristic of Oates's superb balancing of the intellectual and the emotional that she enables a reader to experience Smith's death in the dramatic way she herself did, after which she steps back to portray their marriage, including long discussions of their literary and political interests. Smith, a Ph.D. in English, edited the Ontario Review, a journal he founded jointly with Oates in 1974 to showcase Canadian and U.S. literature. "Despite my reputation as a writer my personal life has been as measured and decorous as Laura Ashley wallpaper," Oates writes. Her long, companionable marriage supported her as she confronted risky fictional material: sexual violence, racial tension, murder.

When Smith dies so unexpectedly, Oates takes Camus's famous line - "Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy" - to heart and to head. How to resist suicide becomes the central concern of her new life. A horrifying basilisk, an "ugly lizard-creature that beckons me to death, to die" appears as a waking vision; a chant of recriminations echoes. Her relentless insomnia resists all attempts to treat it, and she is stricken with terror that she will become addicted to her medications. She continues her professional life - teaching, traveling to give readings - by withholding her fractured self from her audiences. But to us, her readers, she tells all. There is of course a voyeuristic component to reading of her terror, but Oates is fully, ironically aware that we live in an "age of memoir." Readers will be more grateful for than titillated by her willingness to strip bare what is so well-hidden in our culture: how great grief threatens the very soul.

It is also a strange comfort to read these grim scenes and to know that no one else could have written them. All Oates's writerly tics - the exclamation points, the italicized blocks of text, the Emily Dickinson dashes, the copious quotation marks - are out in full force, even as she makes an extraordinary statement: "I've come to realize that my writing - my 'art' - is a part of my life but not the predominant part." Joyce Carol Oates! The prodigious writer from whom we expect a new book every six weeks!

The glimpses into Oates's conversations and correspondence with other writers are another guilty pleasure, for as Oates is struggling to stay alive with the help of friends, we marvel at their array - Edmund White, Gail Godwin, Richard Ford - even as we marvel at their generosity. Gloria Vanderbilt gives this former Catholic a statue of St. Theresa rich with personal associations, and the gift becomes an unexpected comfort.

Indeed, Catholicism itself becomes an unexpected concern as Oates finally steels herself to read her husband's unfinished novel, started before they met but continued intermittently through the years. A former seminarian from an intensely devout Irish-American family, Smith was furious at the Church, but it is only in reading his novel that Oates finally understands how complicated his relationship was. Her contemplation of how she might have encouraged Smith's reconciliation with his father is as difficult and as necessary as her understanding that her husband could never have finished his novel.

By the memoir's wrenching end, Oates hints at a new turn in her life. "Of the widow's countless death-duties," she writes, "there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband's death the widow should think I kept myself alive." Surely, recounting her grief with such wondrous wild abandon has allowed her to endure.

Valerie Sayers, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, has a new novel, "The Powers," coming out this year.

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