Book World: Joyce Carol Oates captures the wobbly reality of widowhood in 'Breathe'

BreatheEcco - handout

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco. 384 pp. $28.99

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Joyce Carol Oates dedicated her new novel, "Breathe," to her second husband, Charles Gross, who died in 2019. The overlaps between the novel and reality are impossible to miss. Like Oates, the lead character of "Breathe," Michaela, is a successful writer and teacher. And she's mourning the death of her husband, Gerard, who, like Gross, was a neuroscientist. Michaela's anguish is intense from the start, as she observes Gerard on his deathbed: "Pleading in desperation," she writes. "In childish hope, unreason. Begging your husband Breathe! Don't stop breathing!"

"Unreason" is the key word there. "Breathe" is stormy, even by Oates' dark domestic-gothic standards, dramatizing Michaela's grief as it curdles into disorientation and then utter derangement. As a narrator, Michaela out-magical-thinks Joan Didion's magical thinking. She unreliably narrates like few have unreliably narrated before. It's both wrenching and at times over-the-top.

Widowhood is a subject Oates knows well. In 2011, she published "A Widow's Story," which collected journal entries she wrote about the death of her first husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008. The book was thick with everyday detail - the slog of phone calls, errands, and arrangements that attended the loss. (Critics noted that Oates covered just about everything except the fact that she married Gross a little more than a year after Smith's death.)

The early going of "Breathe" is rich with many similarly fine-grained passages about Michaela's morbid disorientation in the face of her widowhood. She's lost not just a spouse but much of her identity. "(BEGIN ITAL)If there is no one to admire us, do we exist?(END ITAL)" Michaela muses. And the corollary:(BEGIN ITAL) "If there is no one to love us, do we merit existence(END ITAL)?"

Michaela's internal torments are offset by the novel's placid setting: a town outside Albuquerque where Gerard had taken a residency to finish a book and where Michaela teaches memoir writing. It's a place of "dark-bruised El Greco skies," troubled only by the artwork of Pueblo gods in their rental home that leave Michaela oddly disturbed. The couple planned a few pleasant months away from Cambridge, Massachusetts, before Gerard learned he had late-stage cancer. Gerard's book has the pointed title of "The Human Brain and Its Discontents," and after the diagnosis, the discontent accelerates, as both quickly unravel mentally.

Michaela tries to manage Gerard's decline by soldiering on with her classes, but she has trouble staying on track. When she's informed that Gerard has died, she vividly imagines receiving word of his resurrection. Instead of focusing on fulfilling Gerard's wish to be cremated, she dwells on the silliness of the funeral home's name ("Chapel of Chimes") and the absurdity of the word cremains. The world is undone. "How ridiculous life is, Michaela thinks."

Over her notoriously prolific six-decade career, Oates has honed a few strategies to convey this kind of woman-on-the-verge predicament. No writer this side of Emily Dickinson uses the exclamation point more to convey manic alienation: "Chapel of Chimes! - Michaela's numbed brain hears (BEGIN ITAL)Chapel of Crimes(END ITAL)." Parentheses are deployed to capture the way Michaela's unsettled mind keeps drifting into morbidity: "The widow's life is the life of a penitent bearing her (grotesque, bleeding) heart on the outside of her body."

But in time even simple declarative sentences start to warp. Michaela's expressions of loss, at first dark but rational, become obsessive and crazed: "The first duty of the widow is to join her husband." The narration shifts deeper into the second person, as if Michaela were trying to recruit the reader into her funhouse-mirror-vision of the world. All sorts of anxieties about race, spirituality and the mind begin to well up. Michaela fears she's the imminent victim of one of those Pueblo gods, a "god of eyeless sockets, Skull God, beast-god, scavenger-god poised to devour the body's organs." Widowhood isn't just a cause for mourning but a kind of sump pump for the psyche, voiding everything.

As a portrait of the wobbly unreality of existence that comes with a loved one's death, "Breathe" can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to resolve the story while preserving Michaela's boiled-brain irrationality. She isn't afraid to delve into overstatement to make the point that losing someone we love carves out a piece of us. But that also means Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the novel's latter stages. No rationality can reach her. Gerard's neuroscience offers no comfort. Nor does spirituality - she sees those Pueblo gods as vile monsters. Nor does teaching, which only introduces her to people she can't trust. She's friendless and has no family. She's so inconsolable that she becomes less a character than a leaden symbol of inconsolability.

Michaela's fevered brain vaporizes the affection that defined her marriage. "To be a good widow, as to be a good wife, one must learn how to lie convincingly," Oates writes, just as Michaela is starting to slip badly into irrationality. In its best moments, "Breathe" shows how that makes a kind of sense; so many relationships are made of the stories we tell each other. But it's also a novel that falls in love with its portrait of paranoia - and that's not a healthy relationship for anybody.

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Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of "The New Midwest."