Memoir Instructives: Joyce Carol Oates and Dorothy Allison

Monday, June 11, 2012

Now in the throes of finalizing Handling the Truth, I read or re-read memoir upon memoir—checking myself and my assertions against examples both global and timeless.  It has been interesting, then, to read Joyce Carol Oates' newish A Widow's Story alongside Dorothy Allison's classic Two or Three Things I Know For Sure—one very thick and one very thin, both embroidered with italicized epiphanies, things learned.  Perhaps it is the brevity of Allison's work (words first written to be performed) that makes her learning so riveting.  Perhaps it is the lyric return, those two or three things, the manner in which Allison speaks to herself and (in sideways fashion) speaks to us:

Two of three things I know for sure, and one of them is just this—if we cannot name our own we are cut off at the root, our hold on our lives as fragile as seeds in a wind.


Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is how long it takes to learn to love yourself, how long it took me, how much love I need now.

Oates's voice, on the other hand, is more external, more deliberately instructive.  It is harder around the edges, tensile with new grief:

Advice to the Widow:  Do not think that grief is pure, solemn, austere and "elevated"—this is not Mozart's Requiem Mass.  Think instead Spike Jones, those unfunny "classical" musical jokes involving tubas and bassoons.  


How many widows have made this futile call—dialed numbers which are their own numbers; how many widows have listened to their dead husband's voices again, again—again...

As you will too, one day.  If you are the survivor.  


Becca said...

I read Oates book, and it was so gut wrenching and painful. My heart ached. I was away from my husband at the time, and that made it all the more affecting.

She cuts right to the heart of grief, unflinching.

Lindsey said...

I haven't read Oates' book but Two or Three Things I Know For Sure is one of the books I treasure the most, and contains some of the lines to which I return most often. Beautiful. xo

Melissa Sarno said...

This reading frenzy you are on is not going to be good for my too-big list. That 'futile call' you quote, that nearly killed me right there. Once I heard Oates speak and it struck me how timid and, frankly, strange her actual voice is, so different from her books. And that has nothing to do with anything but whatever.

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