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Not that deranged
on 21 February 2011
Divided into 88 segments, mostly short, this book opens with an episode in which Joyce finds an abusive note on the windscreen of her car, complaining of her parking. In the next segment, she and husband Ray Smith are involved in a serious motor accident that could easily have been fatal, but the injuries they sustain are mostly inflicted only by the explosively inflating airbags. In segment three, Joyce takes Ray to the Emergency Room of the Princeton Medical Center, where he is found to have E.coli pneumonia. In segment fourteen, he dies.
Much of what happens before Ray dies is a waking nightmare. But for Joyce matters are not yet done with moving from bad to worse; the nightmare still has a long way to run.
Clearing the hospital room of Ray's belongings, selecting and visiting an undertaker and buying a burial plot are still not the worst of it. Joyce calls the phase immediately following the death 'pre-widowhood', when the widow hasn't yet got it - what it will mean to inhabit a free-fall world from which meaning has been drained. Beyond that is the 'post-humous life' - life after Ray - which for months to come is worse yet; worst of all.
We know Joyce will eventually be OK when she responds to a floral tribute that warns "Important: decorative plant mosses should not be eaten" with 'A widow may be deranged, but a widow is not that deranged.' Nevertheless, for several months both present and future appear utterly bleak.
She develops various coping mechanisms, such as 'each day is livable if divided into segments - Morning - Afternoon I - Afternoon II - Evening - Night'. Afternoons and evenings are often helped along by teaching and public reading engagements, where she 'impersonates' Joyce Carol Oates, as distinct from being herself, the widow Joyce Smith. At night, too often sleepless, her thoughts turn suicidal. She reflects objectively on the attractions of suicide, but when she quotes Nietzsche, "The thought of suicide is a strong consolation; one can get through many a bad night with it", we are again reassured; neither her balance nor her sense of irony have been lost.
As the outlook slowly improves, the memoir becomes all that we had dared hope of an author who is as articulate, eloquent and distinctive as Joyce Carol Oates. We learn much of Joyce and Ray's courtship, their long and happy marriage, their families and careers. There are reflections on teaching, on writing, on editing (Ray's forte) and, just occasionally, a view on university politics or America as it was and has become. Some of the names dropped are well-known authors, and there is clearly much affection and mutual support within that world. Some condolences and well-intended words of encouragement are crass, but the best are very helpful indeed and, like many of Joyce's own observations, will be noted by the precautious reader for possible future application.
Ultimately, Joyce's message is that whilst widowhood is not a condition in any way to be desired, it is survivable. Besides being an excellent read, this valuable book is full of possible aids to that survival. 'On the first anniversary of the husband's death, the widow should think "I kept myself alive."'