A few weeks ago, I came across an excerpt from Joyce Carol Oates's new memoir, A Widow's Story, in The New Yorker. I was on the top floor of a London double-decker bus, headed to the hospital to pick up my husband, who was recovering from a minor back procedure. When I got on the bus, I was relaxed, even blasé, about my wifely hospital errand. By the time I alighted, I was absolutely frantic.
What if he'd contracted a mysterious secondary infection and was now in the ICU fighting for his life? What if his heart rate accelerated and his blood pressure dropped and I was about to receive a phone call asking if I'd like to take "extraordinary measures" to save him? (Yes, obviously!) What if, while I sat blithely on a bus, reading a magazine and watching the rainy city slide past, my husband was about to die?
These are the more unpleasant kinds of things you are forced to think about whenever reading Oates, a novelist known for her fascination with the darker aspects of human experience. But A Widow's Story is all the more harrowing because, in this case, the terrible events are happening to the author herself, and relayed in agonizingly detailed real time.
In under a week in 2008, Oates's husband of 47 years, editor Raymond J. Smith, checked into a hospital with a fever, was diagnosed with pneumonia, and expired without warning of an unrelated staph infection. Oates's book describes this traumatic event, as well as the shock and collapse that followed.
A Widow's Story is more than an individual tale of woe. It's also a seminal text in an emerging literary genre. First there was chick lit, then came mummy lit. Now we have widow lit - a wave of books unleashed by the experience of losing a loved one.
Joan Didion's bestselling account of her own wifely bereavement, The Year of Magical Thinking, leads the way in terms of sales figures. More recent grief memoirs reach beyond the experience of losing a spouse. Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home and Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty both chronicle the loss of a best friend, and Emma Forrest's Your Voice in My Head focuses on the sudden death of a beloved psychiatrist. Last year's memoir collection, The Heart Does Break, edited by George Bowering and Jean Baird, saw 19 Canadian writers each explore the loss of a loved one.
Widow lit might sound flat-out depressing, but it can be full of humour and insight. Oates is at her best when railing against the banalities of mourning - the meaningless platitudes and bureaucratic irritants thrown at the widow in her hour of need. Her most dreaded adversary is the luxury fruit basket. "Why are people sending me these things?" she wonders. "Do they imagine that grief will be assuaged by chocolate-covered truffles, pâté de foie gras, pepperoni sausages? Do they imagine that assistants shield me from the labour of dealing with such a quantity of trash?"
Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, told me in an e-mail this week that she believes this growing wave of bereavement books is not just evidence of an aging population, but a sign that grief is coming out of, well, mourning. "It's finally socially acceptable again after 50 to 75 years of being a no-go zone," which was, in turn, partly "a reaction to the Victorians' over-the-top mourning," and partly an expression of "the belief that modern medicine was going to make death obsolete, the belief that death was somehow not being modern.
"Thankfully now," she continued, "the pendulum that had swung so far in that direction is now turning back to a more humane, more individualistic understanding that mourning is one of the most profound human activities and nothing that need be done in secret."
Apart from Calvin Trillin's tribute to his late wife, About Alice, I am hard-pressed to think of a significant bereavement memoir authored by a man. Is this because women tend to outlive men or is it because they are more prone to sifting through the ashes of despair? Oates believes the latter: "The widow is one to whom nuggets of insight, profound revelations, 'truths' rush with disconcerting intensity."
One of the stickier aspects of writing about death involves the subject of moving on. While Oates offers a careful catalogue of her loss, she conveniently leaves out the fact that, less than a year after her husband's death, she became engaged to someone else - a Princeton neuroscientist, Charles Gross, whom she married in 2009. A recent piece in The New York Times took a swipe at Oates for writing a book so "long and rambling ... it could have found time to mention a whole new spouse."
Oates, for her part, has delicately talked around the subject, recently remarking to one U.S. Web magazine how different her new husband is from her last. "Charlie is not a literary person. He's not a critic. He finds things to be enthusiastic about in life."
Now that the Victorian era is over, who can begrudge a recent widow her happiness? Or a book she managed to wring from her grief, however selective the memories it contains.