Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

On September 23, 1960, at a gathering in the UW-Madison student union, new grad student Joyce Carol Oates met Ray Smith, an older student about to finish his PhD work on Swift.  He asked her to dinner, and they saw each other every day until they got engaged on October 23 and married on January 23, 1961, after which Joyce became, in a manner of speaking, two people: Joyce Carol Oates, the author of disturbing novels and stories filled sometimes with sexual violence and sometimes just with regular violence, and Joyce Smith, the innocent bride who took years to work up the courage to tell her husband that she didn’t really like Prokofiev that much, and who would never share unpleasant or troubling news with him unless it was unavoidable.

If I seem to be overdramatizing the split, my defense is that this is how she treats herself in A Widow’s Story, the memoir of her “posthumous life” after Ray’s death in 2008.  She speaks of impersonating JCO, and indeed finds some comfort in the impersonation, since Mrs. Smith seems to have lost her identity–even the cats have grown hostile, and she thinks they are blaming her for Ray’s disappearance.  She is pleased to think that her Princeton students have no idea that her husband has died, and is shocked when some of them offer condolences.

This is something of a paradox, for the fascination of the book lies in taking us deep into the world of Joyce Smith as she reconciles herself to the fact that she must go on living: at one point, someone mentions a woman afflicted with agoraphobia, and Joyce thinks hopefully, “Agoraphobia!  That’s something I might try.”  Still, by the time these experiences become a book, it is a book by JCO, not Joyce Smith.

It is surprising to learn that Joyce considers it a moral duty to shield a spouse from disturbing thoughts or news–I am surely not that unusual in feeling that sharing one’s fears and misfortunes is part of what friends (and especially spouses) do for each other.  It is even more surprising to learn that she took this principle to its logical conclusion: since her fiction was so violent and disturbing, she did not show it to Ray, and he did not ask to read it, even though, as a high-brow editor and publisher, he would certainly have read her books if she had not been his wife.  As she says, she shielded him from Joyce Carol Oates.

These reticences, all the more startling in a marriage that seems to have been unusually close and harmonious, didn’t go only in one direction.  Ray didn’t seem comfortable talking about his family, so Joyce felt it her wifely duty never to ask him what happened between him and his father, or why she could never meet the younger sister who had been for some reason institutionalized.  Does it not strike you as a little weird that, after 47 years of marriage, he couldn’t tell his wife why he hated his father?  Eventually she does get some answers by reading his unfinished novel and accompanying notes, something he had led her to believe was written before the two met, but which turns out to include many aspects of their life together.  It also includes an account of the disturbed younger sister, who may have been mentally ill or may simply have been too rebellious to suit her rigidly conservative Catholic family, but in any case was subjected first to exorcism and later to lobotomy.  By all accounts, Ray Smith was a perfect gentleman, a model of calm courtesy–I can’t help thinking that he must also have kept a dynamo of rage coiled as tight as one of those megajoule springs in The Windup Girl.  Joyce is also, touchingly, shocked to discover that Ray had had a love affair before age 30, when he met her–I wasn’t kidding about the “innocent bride” bit.

Joyce has an odd habit of generalizing, especially with respect to gender, talking about how “a widow” or “the widow” will feel or what she will do, or how “a woman will try to console a man, any woman, any man.”  I don’t have much faith that people’s experiences of faith are so comparable; I certainly would not expect every man to share my varying responses to various losses (parents, grandparents, pets, romances, eyesight).  For example, my impression is that many people are more deeply affected by the death of their mother than that of a cat.  Or to return to Joyce, I don’t think every grieving wife feels driven to blast Rachmaninoff and polish all the furniture at 2 A.M., or develops a virulent hatred for Harry & David.  But it is Joyce Smith’s weirdness that makes her seem so authentic, and as a gifted writer, I’m sure Joyce Carol Oates knows it.

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6 Responses to Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

  1. Mary Evelyn White says:

    I can’t even how a relationship like that would make sense, ifyou really felt you loved and trusted this person. She is some strange chick.

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    Do you think that women today feel less obliged than women did in 1960 to shield their partners from disturbing thoughts or news? Or do they not feel that they’d like to let their JCO flag fly, but that they won’t be liked/loved if they do? Don’t some partners really only want to know what they’d like to have be true of their lovers?

    And what do you suppose Joyce and Ray Smith talked about when they talked about love? Do you think we would find it interesting?

    • Roy says:

      a) Well, you tell me–I wasn’t around in 1960, but I think that, especially in environments like grad school, there is much less pressure on women to be acquiescent and soothing.

      b) No, I don’t think it would be very interesting, it would probably be both esoteric and mundane–wouldn’t you expect that from the intimate conversation of most married couples? I would rather hear JCO and her dear friend Edmund White talk about love.

  3. Jane White says:

    Did people talk openly about love in 1960? Other than in the socially acceptable ways – sentimental, keeping to accepted norms. I’m trying to imagine people I knew from earlier generations talking about love, and all I can come up with is either a syrupy waffling on eternal sentiments (think of our mother and many others mothers, too.) Or at the other extreme, that antiseptic, unemotional attitude that the WWII generation adopted: “Hey, kid, the two of us’d make a great team.”

    • Roy says:

      They were English lit grad students, and she was a poet, so there was probs some poetry but I don’t know that it was syrupy. I guess it was too early for him to stand outside her dorm room holding up his boombox and blasting Peter Gabriel.

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