TAKE A DEEP BREATH by Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco, 384 pages, $ 28.99
Joyce Carol Oates dedicated her new novel Breathe to her second husband Charles Gross, who died in 2019. The overlap between the novel and reality cannot be overlooked. Like Oates, the main character of Breathe, Michaela, is a successful writer and teacher. And she mourns her husband Gerard, who, like Gross, was a neuroscientist. Michaela’s fear is great from the start when she watches Gerard on his deathbed: “Pleading in desperation,” she writes. “In childish hope, unreasonable. Ask your husband to breathe! Don’t stop breathing! “
“Unreason” is the key word there. Breathe is stormy, even by Oates’ dark house-Gothic standards, and dramatizes Michaela’s grief, which freezes into disorientation and then into utter confusion. As a narrator, Michaela surpasses Joan Didion’s magical thinking. She tells unreliably, as only a few have previously told unreliably. It’s both annoying and sometimes over the top.
Widowhood is a subject Oates knows well. In 2011 she published A Widow’s Story which collected diary entries she wrote about the death of her first husband Raymond Smith in 2008. The book was full of everyday details – the plague of phone calls, errands, and arrangements made in the event of loss. (Critics noted that Oates covered almost everything except the fact that she married Gross a little over a year after Smith’s death.)
The early walking of Breathe is rich in many similar fine-grained passages about Michaela’s pathological disorientation in the face of her widowhood. Not only has she lost her spouse, but much of her identity as well. “If there is no one to admire us, do we exist?” Michaela ponders. And the conclusion: “If there is no one who loves us, do we deserve to exist?”
Michaela’s inner agony is offset by the novel’s serene surroundings: a town outside Albuquerque where Gerard took up residence to finish a book and where Michaela teaches memoir writing. It is a place of the “dark sky of El Greco”, which is only disturbed by the works of art of the Pueblo gods in their rental house, which Michaela strangely disturbs. The couple planned a pleasant couple of months outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts before Gerard found out he had late-stage cancer. Gerard’s book is pointedly titled The Human Brain and Its Discontents, and once the diagnosis is made, dissatisfaction accelerates as both mentally dissolve quickly.
Michaela tries to cope with Gerard’s decline by moving on with her classes, but she struggles to stay on track. When she learns that Gerard has died, she vividly imagines how she will find out about his resurrection. Instead of focusing on fulfilling Gerard’s cremation request, she dwells on the silliness of the funeral home’s name (“Chapel of Chimes”) and the absurdity of the word Cremains. The world has ended. “How ridiculous is life, thinks Michaela.”
Over the course of her productive six decade long career, Oates has developed a few strategies to get this type of woman on the verge of predicament. No author on this Emily Dickinson page has used the exclamation mark to convey manic alienation: “Chapel of the Chimes! – Michaela’s stupefied brain hears Chapel of Crimes. “It is recorded in brackets how Michaela’s insecure mind drifts again and again into morbidity:” The life of the widow is the life of a penitent who has her (grotesque, bleeding) heart on the outside of her body wearing.”
But over time, even simple statements begin to deform. Michaela’s loss reports, gloomy but rational at first, become obsessive and insane: “The widow’s first duty is to join her husband.” The narrative shifts deeper into the second person, as if Michaela were trying to get the reader into her funhouse -Mirror vision of the world. All sorts of fears about race, spirituality, and the mind begin to arise. Michaela fears that she is the immediate victim of one of these pueblo gods, a “god of the eyeless caves, skull god, animal god, scavenger god who is ready to devour the organs of the body”. Widowhood is not just a cause for mourning, but a kind of swamp pump for the psyche that cancels everything.
As a portrait of the shaky unreality of existence that comes with the death of a loved one, Breathe can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to unravel the story while preserving Michaela’s boiled irrationality. She’s not afraid to delve into exaggeration to show that losing a loved one cuts a piece of us. But that also means that Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the final stages of the novel. No rationality can achieve it. Gerard’s neuroscience offers no consolation. Neither does spirituality – it sees these pueblo gods as hideous monsters. Nor does she do teaching, which she only introduces to people she cannot trust. She has no friends and no family. She is so heartbroken that she becomes less of a figure than a leaden symbol of inconsolability.
Michaela’s feverish brain evaporates the affection that made up their marriage. “To be a good widow, like to be a good wife, you have to learn to lie convincingly,” writes Oates as Michaela slowly slips into irrationality. In its best moments, Breathe shows how that kind of makes sense. So many relationships are made up of the stories we tell each other. But it’s also a novel to fall in love with its portrait of paranoia – and that’s not a healthy relationship for anyone.