Joyce Carol Oates and the ludicrous nature of grief

The best-selling author's greatest strength is her ability to help us understand our own experiences, namely the bad ones.

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Joyce Carol Oates

The best-selling author's greatest strength is her ability to help us understand our own experiences, namely the bad ones.

The circumstances of how Joyce Carol Oates’ first husband died sound too much like one of her short stories.  

Having delivered Raymond Smith to the hospital for a treatable case of pneumonia, a few days later Oates would lose him forever because of complications developed suddenly in the hospital.

Some time passed before Oates could write about it — or anything, which says a lot. But eventually she created her latest book, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, published in February. The book chronicles time leading up to and after Smith’s 2008 death in a faux journal.

During a Seattle Arts & Lectures appearance earlier this week (April 18), Oates described this period of grief as an experience akin to sleepwalking or illness.

When she stepped cautiously onto the stage at Benaroya Hall, dressed in a bright pink turtleneck and conservative black trousers, I worried that she had left recovery too soon. Her slight Shelly Duvall figure — and the fact that she carried her purse on stage with her — made her seem too vulnerable. I feared the loud applause might blow her right over.

But Oates powered through moderator Jessica Burstein’s complex questions with all the strength and style of a boxer (one of her favorite subjects). A lover of boxing since her father took her to fights as a teen, Oates described the sport as an emblem for human failure, trailing off as she said: "All that training that comes to nothing.”

“If Muhammad Ali had known the consequences" of fighting beyond retirement, she pondered, “would he have continued in the same way?”

Measuring futility and failure is big for Oates right now. That feels ironic for a woman who has likely obliterated whole forests with her own publishing success.

She refers to herself throughout A Widow’s Story as the “Widow-to-be,” underscoring how the moments leading up to her husband’s death will soon be rendered unimportant. Her narrator persona looms over her past self, pitying her.

Oates spent a lot of time discussing how the early stages of grief were an undignified time for her: “I felt I was clutching this tragic script, but I was stuck in a Marx Brothers movie…. Grief was supposed to be ennobling … but instead it’s ludicrous. It’s not King Lear at all,” she joked. 

Where she thought she’d be wandering the Appalachian Trail, wrapped in a shawl and reading poetry, she was instead dealing with the headaches of probate court and parking debacles.

At this point in the evening, my mind wandered to Kim Basinger’s character in the not-so-classic ’80s movie “My Stepmother is An Alien.” Basinger plays a sexy extraterrestrial who has come to Earth on the equivalent of a Homeland Security mission. She runs into trouble on account of her ignorance concerning basic human experiences, including breakfast, grocery shopping, and orgasms.

Referring to people’s public expressions of sympathy for her loss, Oates channeled a bit of Basinger’s perplexed affect: probing everyday human behavior with a turned head. What is this thing you call loneliness? I know only of books.

Of course, it’s this distance from a typical daily life that allows Oates to do what she does so well, which is to deconstruct. The level of uncertainty which she carries toward basic subjects allows for unrelenting questioning — and thus, a thorough analysis. 

And in order to do that kind of work, especially when you write about horrors, humiliations, and ne’er-do-wells as often as she does, you have to be able to take a step back. Get desensitized — and like a coroner, be able to open it all up without flinching. 

How else would you wisecrack about Sylvia Plath’s suicide in front of thousands of people? (She joked that Plath might not have killed herself if she had written worse poetry.) Or relish, as she does, covering boxing “ringside,” where the blood flies.

Oates is not normal. And she’s not just a prolific fiction writer. She is an alien, sent to Earth to spelunk through the unflattering tunnels of our consciousness and draw a map that others can follow. Just as specialists need to be hired to enter the city’s sewers, so we must send Joyce Carol Oates to tangle with the parts of the human condition that, contrary to her, we spend our working days avoiding thinking about.

So if there’s any positive outcome to be gained from the death of her husband, it’s that there is now a new authoritative guide to grief and the contemplation of suicide, written from an expert’s point of view in elegant prose — and with subtle humor that is always accessible. It is not a “guide” in the literal sense, of course. Oates is not a psychologist trained to help you manage depression, nor would she presume to be.

However, her profound skill as an astute observer and reader of literature — for me — makes her the next best thing.


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