It is over three months since I saw Joyce Carol Oates talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. On 26 August, Michael Cathcart interviewed her in his benign and unpretentious manner, but was not a good match for her incisive intellect and wit, and the glassy Deakin Edge venue echoed nastily. Too often, JCO’s precious words bounced away, but fortunately were captured for Cathcart’s Radio National show ‘Books and Arts’. I had prepared myself for the rare treat by reading two volumes of her short stories and her novel Black Water. Much as I admired her work, that was enough for now. There is only so much bleakness I can tolerate, and her short stories go into dark territory. When JCO flew away, I put her books back on the shelf, and turned to more cheerful fare.
Shortly afterwards I came across (in Best American Essays 2016) her essay about her sister, eighteen years younger than Joyce, who developed severe autism as a child and was eventually institutionalised. ‘The Lost Sister: An Elegy’ is a harrowing account, bringing to mind characters and incidents in Oates’s stories, and giving some context to her fiction. To live with a mute and violent sister who never looks any of her family in the eye would surely colour your imagination in shades of black.
On a recent trip to the Murray River I came across a secondhand copy of A Widow’s Story, JCO’s 2011 memoir, a testimony to grief. When her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, died, Oates dived into a crazed insomnia and spent the next six months trying to claw her way back from despair. Unlike Joan Didion’s succinct A Year of Magical Thinking, Oates’s memoir is discursive, a 415-page record of a distracted mind haunted by regret and shame, a day-by-day account of survival.
There are some books that make me reluctant to move on and start reading another. A Widow’s Story had that effect on me. Its honest self-exposure has inspired me to make a tentative start on a memoir about living with a daughter who has a mental illness. It is difficult territory, which I have been hesitant to enter, but now I have a light to guide me.
And it appears there is another memoir of JCO’s waiting for me, one day: The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age (2015). It includes a lot of her published nonfiction, including the essay on her sister. I imagine I will come across it one day, at the right time, on a shelf in some dusty rural bookshop.