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In what I've read she starts with her husband's death, then tells the immediate story that led to his death, so now we will move on to what follows, and I imagine a lot of memory.
So far I don't feel it is as distilled as Joan Didion's extraordinary book The Year of Magical Thinking which I have given to a number of people both who have and haven't lost a close loved one, but in some ways I wonder whether JCO's book may be as much a book to be read by those who haven't yet lost someone. To those who have managed not to have a death in their familes well into adulthood and although they rationally know people do die, they are beginning to wonder if it is a lie, as it hasn't happened to them.
I also have a sense that JCO's loss will very powerfully feed into her fiction in the future.
Reading Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir about grief and recent widowhood is an intense experience. One almost has to do so with one eye partially closed as she has spared us nothing of the pain, confusion, anger and loneliness of her condition. An intensity perhaps heightened by the fact that she had been with her husband for almost 50 years with few days apart.
One of the interesting aspects of the memoir highlights that despite living with someone for so long, there are still massive aspects of each other people may keep to themselves, and Oates worries about what it is she might not know about her husband, what she might discover (especially as she considers reading an unpublished novel whose manuscript she has known about but not seen for almost the length of their marriage).
Expanding on this (and something that cropped up in the volume of published Journals) was the separation – this public entity ‘Joyce Carol Oates’, and the woman Joyce Smith (who now has a further identity with her recent re-marriage). How much did her husband know about the life of JCO when he didn’t read her fiction (only reading criticism and essay)? How much of Joyce Smith is JCO, one assumes quite a large part with so prolific a writer (it is almost impossible to get away from that phrase, and I use it with awe rather than a groan!).
Although physically one might perceive Oates as quite a vulnerable person, when you read her work you can sense a core of iron in there, so watching this person disintegrate is very painful. But I feel there is a point in listening to the voices of those who have ‘been there’. We live now, in the democratic west, in a society that has lost its relationship with death. If it is perceived at all at a time when it is not the personal experience of an individual it is as a form of entertainment in films and computer games. And of course those who have died get up and play the game again.
As most of us now also live in isolation to wider family and often not within a functioning community we don’t see the natural cycles of birth, life and death in the way that was common before.
I think that reading such a memoir as this might enable us to ‘live better’ as well as to ‘make a good death’ when the time comes. To grow in the knowledge and learn to live with the only contract that none of us can buck in life, the fact that it concludes with death.
Of course, no doubt, the Philosophers have given some thought to this issue of how greater knowledge and understanding of death may improve the life led, and I want to explore that, but in the meantime the reading of JCO’s experiences have enhanced my own life and I thank her for her gift, and am delighted to know that subsequently she has found a new happiness, which proves that although you will never ‘get over’ the loss of someone deeply loved, the opportunity of finding another love or life again is out there.
After the reading, she did a short interview. A member of the audience asked what one should do when someone that they know has lost a spouse. Her advice was very interesting - if you're not someone that is in that person's semi-everyday life or have not been extremely close, then do nothing! The person grieving is so overwhelmed with everyday things that cards and flowers and food and everything else from people that you hardly know was such a pain for her! You could imagine that she would get more attention than, say, the newly widowed person down the street, but it was something for me to think about. Sometimes I get too wrapped in what the proper etiquette is to think about how it may affect the person I'm trying to be proper towards!
Side Note: I'm surprised you describe Jodi Picoult as polished and well-rehearsed. We hosted her twice at the bookstore and she was very casual, down-to-earth...a lot of fun. But this, of course, more than five years ago. She may have had to become a bit more polished and rehearsed.
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