Helena on Joyce Carol Oates

On a drab February morning very much, I imagine, like this one, renowned novelist Joyce Carol Oates drove her husband of 48 years, literary editor/publisher Raymond Smith to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Little did they know that the trip to the ER was to be their very last trip together – on 18 February, after seemingly improving, Ray died after contracting a secondary infection. He was 77. 

“Life changes in an instant.” Anyone who has read Joan Didion’s haunting memoir A Year of Magical Thinking will recall this line. This is also true of Oates’ unexpected journey into widowhood: you leave your husband’s bedside early in order to go home and arrange for his homecoming – which surely must be weeks, days even, away? – and receive a call in the middle of the night to please come quickly. You leave the hospital as a wife and return as a widow. To become a widow is, in a way, to survive a loved one – but how does one really survive when life as you know it has come to a screeching halt? Oates offers no definite answers, but provides a poignant and, for such an intensely private writer, surprisingly intimate take on her nightmarish descent into widowhood. Yet through it all - the desperation, the 5 am suicidal thoughts, the beady-eyed “lizard-thing” urging her to end it all, to put herself out of her misery – Oates remains, essentially, a writer. Her unique tone permeates the grief and makes A Widow’s Story not only a must-read memoir, but a must-read literary work. Her use of the “lizard-thing” as a way of explaining her anguish, for instance, bears echoes of her more horror-tinged works, while the frantically hyphenated tale of her “hospital vigil” – those six days of hope and despair leading up to her husband’s death – eerily mimics her husband’s shortness of breath as well as the poetry of Emily Dickinson, a writer whom Oates greatly admires and refers to on several occasions throughout the book. It is very, very impressive – and comforting to see Joyce Carol Oates return to form. Because while I admit to being an avid (manic?) reader of virtually everything Oates publishes (a full time job, I’m telling you!),  there has been something lacking in some of her more recent work. To be able to find the essence of everything I love about Joyce Carol Oates in one single volume – over forty years after her debut novel! – is a wonderful thing. I’d recommend A Widow’s Story to old JCO fiends like yours truly as well as those new to her writing. It is a gut-wrencher of a read: brutally honest and unfliching in its portayal of love, loss, and anguish. It is also, ultimately, a story of survival and – sorry if this comes off Oprah Winfreyish – the healing power of words. For grief renders us at a loss for words, and to be able to articulate one’s grief, and do it as eloquently as poignantly as Oates... surely that must be a blessing? 

It is no coincidence that I chose to publish this review on 14 February, which in our Western society equals Valentine’s Day. A day to love and be loved – or a day to shop oneself silly and collapse on the sofa after having OD’d on candy, the tacky red lingerie you’re never going to get around to wearing anyway still lying in its wrapper where it will remain forgotten, unloved, a casualty of the Valentine’s Day shopping bonanza we all fiercely criticise yet somehow keep alive year after year? I say: a day to reminisce over what it really means to love someone. Yep, this is where I go all memento mori on you (my apologies in advance). Because, as Oates points out, to love someone is also, potentially, to lose someone. When you say “I do” you not only agree to become someone’s spouse; the threat of widow(er)hood is also there, lurking in the background. “Until death do us part”: we say these words, hear them in endless Hollywood movies, but do we truly comprehend them? Is the reality – the fatality – of loving someone for the rest of our lives lost among the glossy wedding mags, the rom coms with the obligatory happy endings? As you can see, A Widow’s Story raises all sorts of questions regarding love, loss, mortality, and marriage. Therefore, it strikes me as an ideal choice for a book club. Book club or no book club: do read it! If, after having read it, you feel like exploring the massive jungle that is Joyce Carol Oates’ back catalogue, read on for some tips on where to continue.

Helena’s Top 5 of the month: 5 essential books by America’s Dark Lady of Letters

Blonde (2001)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Arguably Oates magnum opus, this fictionalised biography on Marilyn Monroe is one of my all-time favourites. At nearly 900 pages, it may seem daunting, and yes, Oates does have a tendency to expand (in terms of words, that is...) but Blonde is definitely worth the effort! Truly a Great American Novel. Read it before it becomes a major feature film starring the always magnificent Naomi Watts. 

Bellefleur (1980)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Fancy a bit of magic realism blended with a larger-than-life, sweeping Gothic family saga? Of course you do! More than thirty years after its original publication, Bellefleur remains one of Oates’ most imaginative and impressive works.

Rape: A Love Story (2004)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Consider yourself warned: This pitch-black novella will most definitely upset you. I read it for the first time a couple of weeks ago and am still fuelled with rage – and haunted by the characters and Oates’ merciless exploration into the darkest, goriest parts of small town America.

The Falls (2002)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Next to Blonde, this moving epic is, I think, Oates’ finest 21st moment... so far. A book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2007)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates is a superb writer of short stories and this collection of the mysterious, the scary, and the downright weird is one of her very best. As a life-long horror fan, I especially appreciate how Oates dives into particularly murky and, occasionally, absolutely terrifying waters. If you’re a parent, the story “Banshee” ought to come with a written warning – it is so horrific, I think I forgot to breath for a while. An oxygen mask may be required...