Most of the grief-struck suffer—especially in the first months—from a terror of forgetting their lost one. Often the shock of death wipes out the memory of earlier times, and there is a morbid fear that it will never be recovered: that the lost one will now be twice lost, twice killed. Joyce Carol Oates does not appear to have suffered this fear; instead, she suffers a rarer, more interesting, and potentially more corrosive one—that of never having fully known her husband in the first place.
Oates and Smith married in January 1961, and her portrait of their first years together—the time when secrets are exchanged, concentration on the other is at its fullest, and the lineaments and rules of the partnership are worked out—is both vivid and touching. It is also a relationship colored more by the 1950s than the 1960s. Oates was eight years younger than Smith; they were shy of one another, even in marriage; by her own account she never wanted to upset him, let alone argue with him. Thus, for example:
It was years before I summoned up the courage to suggest to Ray that I did not really like some of the music he frequently played on our stereo—such macho-hectic compositions as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, the chorale ending of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its relentless joy joy joy like spikes hammered into the skull, much of Mahler…
Fortunately, it seems that Smith was only in touch with the “macho-hectic” side of masculinity when lowering a stylus onto vinyl. He comes across as quiet, loyal, and domesticated; a cook, a keen gardener, and a meticulous editor of the Ontario Review. He read most of his wife’s nonfiction but very little of her fiction. It is, of course, a famously large oeuvre (fifty-five novels plus hundreds of short stories); even so, the reader is brought up short when Oates writes: “I don’t believe that Ray read my first novel With Shuddering Fall.” Which is the more astonishing: that he didn’t read it, that she isn’t sure whether or not he did, or that she expresses neither annoyance nor disappointment at his omission? But then her opinions on the relationship between the sexes are somewhat unusual:
To a woman, the quintessential male is unknowable, elusive.
In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious—unless it was unavoidable.
Women are inclined to console men, all women, all men, in all circumstances without discretion.
The ideal marriage is of a writer and her/his editor.
A wife must respect her husband’s family even when—as it sometimes happens—her husband does not entirely respect them.
A wife must respect the otherness of her husband—she must accept it, she will never know him fully.
This sounds like shyness raised to marital principle; and it brings with it the danger that when the wife becomes a widow and goes through her husband’s papers, she will find out things she barely suspected. In Ray Smith’s case: a nervous breakdown, a love affair at a sanatarium, a psychiatrist’s description of him as “love-starved,” and further evidence of a difficult, distant relationship with his father. “For all that I knew Ray so well,” she concludes, “I didn’t know his imagination.” Nor, perhaps, did he know hers, given that he rarely read her fiction. But he was “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man.”
In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria. The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief. Phrases like “Friends have been wonderful inviting me to their homes” are platitudes; but grief is filled with platitudes. The chapter headed “Fury!” begins:
Then suddenly, I am so angry.
I am so very very angry, I am furious.
I am sick with fury, like a wounded animal.
If a creative writing student turned this in as part of a story, the professor might reach for her red pencil; but if that same professor is writing a stream-of-consciousness diary about grief, the paragraph becomes strangely validated. This is how it feels, and what is grief at times but a car crash of cliché? A few pages later, Oates is reflecting on the fact that she now has a private identity as “Joyce Smith” or “Mrs. Smith,” official widow, and a public identity under her full three-part writing name:
“Oates” is an island, an oasis, to which on this agitated morning I can row, as in an uncertain little skiff, with an unwieldy paddle—the way is arduous not because the water is deep but because the water is shallow and weedy and the bottom of the skiff is endangered by the rocks beneath. And yet—once I have rowed to this island, this oasis, this core of calm amid the chaos of my life—once I arrive at the University…
The image of a skiff and a water- crossing is dead and unrevivable, no matter how extended? It doesn’t matter. This sentence may be the first in world literature where the writer imagines you can row to an oasis? But you don’t understand: incoherence of imagery is a fair representation of the acutely distracted and fractured mind. You mean, she didn’t even notice when reading the proofs? Again, it doesn’t matter whether she did or didn’t. You asked for a sense of what it is like: this is what it is like.
Grief dislocates both space and time. The grief-struck find themselves in a new geography, where other people’s maps are only ever approximate. Time also ceases to be reliable. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, describes the effect on him of his wife’s death:
Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.
And this unreliability of time adds to the confusion in the sorrower’s mind as to whether grief is a state or a process. This is far from a theoretical matter. It is at the heart of the question: Will it always be like this? Will things get better? Why should they? And if so, how will I tell? Lewis admits that when he started writing his book,
I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.
Probably, it needs both at the same time. We might try to pin it down by saying that grief is the state and mourning the process; yet to the person enduring one or both, things are rarely clear, and the “process” is one that involves much slipping back into the paralysis of the “state.” There are various markers: the point at which tears—regular, daily tears—stop; the point when the brain returns to normal functioning; the point when possessions are disposed of; the point when memory of the lost one begins to return. But there can be no general rules, nor standard time-scale. Those pesky neurons just can’t be relied upon.
What happens next, when the state and the process are, if by no means complete, at least established and recognizable? What happens to our heart? Again, there are those confident surrounding voices (from “How could he/she ever marry again after living with her/him?” to “They say the happily married tend to remarry quickly, often within six months”). A friend whose long-term lover had died of AIDS told me, “There’s only one upside to this thing: you can do what you fucking well like.” The trouble is that when you are in sorrow, most notions of “what you like” will contain the presence of your lost love and the impossible demand that the laws of the universe be repealed. And so: a hunkering-down, a closing-off, a retreat into the posthumous faithfulness of memory? Raymond Smith didn’t much like Dr. Johnson, finding him too didactic, and preferring the Doctor of Boswell’s account to that of his own writings. But on sorrow, Johnson is not so much didactic as wise, clear, and decisive:
An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference, is unreasonable and vain. If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention; but since however we may debar our lives from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets, and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.
So what constitutes “success” in mourning? The ability to return to concentration and work; the ability to rediscover interest in life, and take pleasure in it, while recognizing that present pleasure is far from past joy. The ability to hold the lost love successfully in mind, remembering without distorting. The ability to continue living as he or she would have wanted you to do (though this is a tricky area, where the sorrowful can often end up giving themselves a free pass). And then what? Some form of self-sufficiency that avoids neutrality and indifference? Or a new relationship that will either supplant the lost one or, perhaps, draw strength from it?
There is another strange parallel between The Year of Magical Thinking and A Widow’s Story. By the time each book came out, many readers would know one additional key fact not covered in the text. In Didion’s case, the death of her daughter Quintana (which the author deals with in a subsequent edition); in Oates’s, her remarriage to a neuroscientist, whose existence is hinted at rather coyly on the last page. You could argue that those writing about grief make their own literary terms more than most; but even so, in Oates’s case there is something unhappy in the omission. She is writing about a year that began on February 18, 2008; we know from her own mouth (in an interview with the London Times) that she met her second husband in August 2008, they started going on walks and hikes in September, and were married in March 2009. If Didion posed “the question of self-pity” in the first lines of her book, Oates, in a chapter called “Taboo,” similarly approaches the difficult heart of the matter:
It’s a taboo subject. How the dead are betrayed by the living.
We who are living—we who have survived—understand that our guilt is what links us to the dead. At all times we can hear them calling to us, a growing incredulity in their voices You will not forget me—will you? How can you forget me? I have no one but you.