MARCH 21, 2012
MICHELLE LATIOLAIS’S CHARACTERS KNOW a thing or two about grief and loss, and about the painful journey of self-healing. In Latiolais’s first novel Even Now, an adolescent gets caught between the warring of her narcissistic parents; in her follow-up, A Proper Knowledge, a middle-aged psychiatrist, isolated and mourning his long-dead sister, falls for a woman wrapped tightly within her own protective shroud. Now, with Widow, Latiolais wades bravely and directly back into that fearsome terrain, this time in short story form, making fine use of her predilection for suspended moments, imagistic details, and juxtaposition. Part meditation on connections and disconnections, part fictionalized memoir written in the wake of her husband’s death, these stories, narrated in each instance by a female voice if not necessarily a bereaved one, conjure a shifty world in which most everyone is scarred from the routine violence of living. They shift in style from essayistic to impressionistic, and vary widely in scope: some moments unfold in paragraphs and minutes, while others span pages and years. Their story lines are often deceptively slim and static, as Latiolais’s characters attend a church service or wander into a strip club, sit through a dismal first date or stand ironing napkins for a dinner party, against a backdrop of museums, doctor’s offices, rural Uganda or a Los Angeles coffee shop. That’s because Latiolais’s true narrative focus is on the inner landscape of her protagonists. Even other characters come off as slight and peripheral, mere reference points for the common preoccupations of the narrators.
Take “Caduceus,” one of the two Pushcart-nominated stories contained in Widow: it opens on a new widow, standing before her coffee grinder, nearly overwhelmed by the dawn of another day. Her heart races, and again, she tries to argue herself into making an appointment so that the doctor can calm her hyperthyroidism:
“You’ll stress your heart,” the doctor kept saying to her, “there will be damage.” She had tried not to laugh in his face, damage! How clever and heart-stoppingly witless they were, these tenders of the body, how poised for perception that they’d never tumble to…
Like many of the book’s damaged narrators, this one doesn’t hold much faith in treatment and repair: the nameless women of Widow are young and old and middle-aged, but never afraid to endure life’s shattered moments. (Elsewhere she will be perplexed at the very notion that someone could want to study another’s mind and simultaneously tinker with its chemistry.) Though often coolly observant, she never opts to intellectualize away pain. Profoundly sensitive, the “she” of these stories can be thin-skinned, now and again perhaps too on alert for wounds to lick, but she is no shrinking violet or gentle martyr. “She” speaks with a voice flecked with sly humor, and possesses a strength born of unflinching vulnerability.
And if Latiolais’s stories don’t always work, it’s because they so fervently wish to be understood. Only a third of them focus explicitly on widowhood, yet much of the book’s momentum comes from its powerful confrontation with this particular heartbreak, with the “creatural anguish of losing someone else’s body, their touch, their heat, their oceanic heart.” On this subject, Latiolais’s writing achieves a raw elegance, devastatingly precise, controlled (though barely). “Sorrow in her is so pervasive, so stultifying, she is slow to turn to anger,” she writes in reaction to a friend’s glibness. “A lot of people’s lives are spared because of this.” Touchingly, though, widowhood has also bestowed on this figure a generosity of spirit. She does not chastise a male gynecologist for his insensitivity, because her marriage was a solid union that taught her that good people say stupid things. An atheist, she finds herself at an evening Mass, unwilling to mock the religious, or “any mythology by which people make sense of pain.”
Widow glimpses women during several phases of life, most of them emotionally fraught if not entirely tragic. In “Gut,” an anthropologist’s wife is whisked off to Africa to eat chimpanzee food and throw up 37 times; a theater professor’s wife, in “Crazy,” comes to believe her husband is unfaithful; a young woman recalls her childhood in “Moon.” Most anywhere she goes, an aura of hostility suffuses the atmosphere. The widow of “Caduceus” sees her own hand as a strange sort of “steak with too many bones.” Elsewhere, there are bones shattered by a passing car, skin burned by cheap nylon, heads fractured by domestic violence. At the same time, an unglamorous sexuality also runs throughout. Even the quietest moments contain big ideas, as the book subtly engages with body image, gender dynamics, aging, the fear of being socially discarded, and the like, allowing these complicated themes to rub delicately against each other.
There is poetry in Latiolais’s prose. Charged by memory and the frisson of association, these stories revel in the texture of words, their sounds, their vagaries, their betrayals. The narrator might pause to parse the very term “widow,” or conjure an entire story out of a riff on the color pink. No mere airy obsession, these taxonomies form but another strain of the author’s ruthless precision. “His ashes within a brown leather book are better than ideas,” she reminds us. In losing her husband, she has lost her very footing in the world, now that “there is no place he needs her to be.” When platitudes fail, this insistence on grounding can prove to be a saving grace. In “Place,” the grieving widow ritually frequents a Korean spa, buying massages just to obtain human contact:
She has a form of love for these women, who do not know her with any particularity of character, but who care for her and have cared for her with no small degree of attention, even affection … it was a moment that pulled the human animal back into the fold — a moment that said there were a few in this species who didn’t shame you with their violence…
Joyce Carol Oates has written that she considered framing her recent memoir, A Widow’s Story, as a sort of handbook for the bereft. Like the flood of “sympathy gift baskets” in A Widow’s Story, Latiolais’s widows can feel smothered beneath good intentions and clueless well-wishers. Unsure themselves exactly how one recovers from grief, they are surrounded by people who aren’t sure how to comfort them: “it must really be rather exciting to be able to completely redesign your life now!” a colleague crassly gushes in “Place.” Perhaps a fictional flourish, yet one comes across a similar sentiment in A Widow’s Story. “Beginning again — like, a divorce — can be good,” Oates is informed by a contractor.
America has become steeped in the language of optimism — at times at the expense of reality — and if there’s one theme that’s come out of the recent spate of grief memoirs, it’s coming to terms with loss without traditions for expressing suffering. In the title story, Latiolais’s narrator, adrift in an oblivious culture,
stands before the shelf of etiquette books and pulls down each book and turns to “Widow,” to “Death,” to all the fine advice and less fine insistences, her favorite being “A widow never wears pearls … or if she dares to, they must be black or gray.”
Bereft of such cheap proscriptions, Widow offers pearls rough, mottled, shimmering.