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Ah, the Merry Widows!

By (June 1, 2011) No Comment


Michelle Latiolais
Bellevue Literary Press, 2011

First, the seventeen stories in Widow, by Michelle Latiolais, are not solely about widows. They are also not, as the title may suggest,
dreary weepers or meant only for female readers. One the contrary, Latiolais’s prose is so lively and her characters so perceptive and engaged that strong currents of optimism run through even the
saddest of these stories. This is a work of fiction, but it seems to draw its energy and hard-earned experience from Latiolais’s own widowhood, and that provides it with both heartfelt and powerful insights into the mourning process.

A recurring question in the book is the meaning of the word “widow”: “In some ways, it’s a word for everyone else but the person who is now a widow,” Latiolais has said; it’s a word that offers “definition and no definition.” The word’s ambiguity is often at the heart of these stories.

Halfway through Widow, for instance, are two stories that present differing visions of the state of widowhood. “Gut” is a genuinely funny piece of writing about a deeply loving and childless couple. Here, the memories of their time together buoy the surviving wife after her husband dies—the story is upbeat, warm, and comic. But in “Hoarding,” which follows it, a widow lives alone, descending into a state of dangerous solitude:

She now understands the Cat Woman, a staple of every neighborhood, the woman who lives alone with a dozen cats, or two dozen, the house sending up a reek that can be smelled from the sidewalk—this is a person she understands something about now, when perhaps she hadn’t before.

The closeness of the couple in “Gut” contrasts sharply with the state of this widow, whose husband is dead due to “what pharmaceutical scientists knew but kept to themselves, pacing, alone, proprietary in their lifeless laboratories.”

In a different vein, “Boys” is set during a bachelorette party that grows increasingly uncomfortable for another couple, testing the reactions of the man and the woman (most characters are unnamed), and imbuing their relationship, if temporarily, with “a snarly, odd tension.” We are given the woman’s consciousness—connected at times to the thinking of the other women present—and her reactions are a complex mix of sexual curiosity, sociological interest, and awareness of her partner’s unease. Indeed, with the exception of “Gut,” most stories present the intelligent, self-possessed female characters as alone, or lonely, in some fashion: sometimes they’re in a relationship, but are more often not. They are in almost constant conflict, either within themselves or when their emotions and sensibilities crash into the non-grieving world.

This second conflict—of the mourner amongst non-mourners—is presented from the first (and title) story, where an articulate widow, aching for her husband, visits an obtuse gynecologist. Since her husband’s death her “periods have stopped, she has lost so much weight,” and “sometimes she is almost hysterical.” Yet the male doctor doesn’t see her as a person or even carefully read the information she provided on the medical form, preferring to focus on her sexual activity: “‘Wow, two years, you haven’t had sex in two years?’ and he fixes her with a look, and she realizes that it is her turn to say “Wow.’” The blindness of the medical profession (another doctor doesn’t apologize for a wrong diagnosis) is compounded by the heartlessness of the medical form she must fill out, which “aligns [widows] with whores and divorced women and forbids priests from marrying such defiled creatures….” When she attempts to bond with another woman who has lost her husband, friends see her and joke, “Ah, the merry widows!” This is not a story about emotion running into scientific objectivity; it’s about grief and insensitivity.

If doctors, friends, and well-wishers come off poorly in Widow, these are nevertheless often the only people the widows can turn to for help. Each woman in these stories has lost a cherished partner, so their grief is acute. There aren’t any idiotic or mean husbands here, and the dead are genuinely missed. This is not the norm of literary realism, as most contemporary fiction has tried to instill in readers the belief that joy, contentment and abiding love don’t exist. If Latiolais only emphasized these qualities, her collection might fall into sentiment, but she too has a fine eye for the cruelty that emanates from authorities and society—“the contemporary world [that] forbade lamentation.” Indeed, the existence of real love sharpens the sense of cruelty, and part of the bravery of Widow is the way it looks, with a steady eye, at the potentially unnerving topic of what life means for those who are newly, and possibly perpetually, defined as “widowed.”

Naturally, the characters react to their changed status in different ways, and inertia in the wake of loss is viewed from several angles. The widow of “Widow” feels her doctors’ incomprehension of her state. She is ill in a way that they don’t perceive. “She knows she is beginning to marmorealize into that character called ‘widow,’ untouchable, dark, by definition unhappy, sexless.” But she retains a small hope: “Her body is fighting for her, for some existence it recognizes as oxygen, water, sustenance.” Generally the women endure in the Faulknerian sense, with sorrow and insight, their hearts and minds working together, though not always equally, as they struggle through practical matters while looking at the abyss they might fall into, if they haven’t already.

And what of the soul? The illness spoken about above is part of the internal conflict a number of these stories explore. Does the soul play a role in the healing process? “Caduceus” features a widow contemplating her own health while listening to a recording of sacred music on the harpsichord. The music makes her imagine candles being extinguished in a church, “until the snuffer came down on the fifteenth candle and there was just the cool, somber enormity of the stone church and the fine, fine libidinal darkness….” There’s not much spiritual consolation there in the thought of extinction, but as in “Widow,” there is a call from the body, in this case the recognition of a lingering sexual appetite.

Latiolais’ interest in definitions—in “Pink,” multiple connotations of that word are explored inside a small museum display—combines with her interest in distinguishing between spiritual longing and religion in “Place,” one of the collection’s finer stories. We begin in the narthex of a church, as a forty-nine-year-old widow mulls over that word:

Narthex is the word she keeps repeating to herself, narthex, but she knows this is not the right word for where the congregants sit, for where she sits now amid the empty pews and the huge speakers buzzing from the aisles, amplifying their presence and nothing more.

The narthex is the lobby of a church; to be there is to be outside the place of communion and communal gathering. It’s symbolically apt for this widow of one year; she aims for spirituality, but not for religion, and this story works along that dividing line. We are in a godless space on another Saturday night, where many “stark faces” similar to the widow blend into the shadows (one thinks of shades and the underworld) as musicians play before the service. The blonde singer, the widow thinks, offers “so bland a musical offering, it falls to the category ‘female recording artist’… mild, yes, almost unbearably inoffensive….” The widow is disengaged from this house of God, who is in it and what it represents. The man who conducts the service, such as it is, is dressed in “jeans and tennies and untucked shirt”; the congregants might be listening, but they can also rush away suddenly with cell phone in hand.

The widow’s thoughts stray to her creative writing students, and back to the moment to describe God as “an epicurean bastard picking and choosing with his silver fork” those who won’t die. “She is not agnostic; she knows what she knows”: she’s, instead, “a radical epistemological skeptic.” Why has she come to this church, or any church? The activity strikes the reader as a reflex, like the last movements of the dying. “She hasn’t come to meet others who believe as she believes, hasn’t come thinking the aegis of Episcopalianism means anything at all . . . nor has she come to make fun of any mythology by which the human animal makes sense of pain.” At the end of the story the widow leaves while the service is still going:

A woman seated several pews behind her looks up at her leaving, and the look is desperate, a look that says, Please take me with you. The woman’s pale brown hair hangs straight to her shoulders and the woman seems somehow biblical, veiled, and she does think to lean down and say “Let’s go, come on, let’s get out of here,” but she doesn’t have a thing she can offer the woman that she doesn’t desperately need herself, and anyway, where could they go.

For Latiolais, this is a universal condition. In leaving behind the “biblical” woman, the widow is removing herself from the closest thing around to God. The absence of religious faith in “Place”—not solely caused by anger at that “epicurean bastard”—reminds me of Henry Miller’s description of a street in Tropic of Capricorn, “emptier than the most extinct volcano, emptier than a vacuum, emptier than the word God in the mouth of an unbeliever.” The widow’s quick physical movements as she leaves are found in some of Latiolais’ other female characters. Their bodies contain the survival instinct that the soul, heart, and mind don’t have: “she came to understand the body could not withstand grief every waking moment,” the widow of the title story thinks, “that the body would insist on a cessation for a time of the morbidity of grieving.”

In the collection’s best stories, Latiolais demonstrates a scrupulous attention to the movement between states, and she delineates distress or sadness with precision and warmth. The attention she pays to details, whether they are words or deeds, propels us swiftly into the narrative. That fine eye can be seen, for example, in “Breathe,” where the routine task of ironing in preparation for a dinner party becomes an occasion for severe lessons on the flammability of fabrics and, post-meal, the relationship between nylon and cadaverine.

There are many other excellent stories in Widow, including “Damned Spot,” about both a dog and a suicidal husband named Paul, the name of Michelle Latiolais’ dead husband. The abundant affection shown to man and beast in this closing story is a fittingly positive conclusion—earned and unforced—to a book whose contents have taken in so much loss. I’ve tried to single out a few of the book’s themes, but I can only hint at the contents. For the intimate ways that it explores the recesses of grief with warmth, earthiness, and humor, Widow is the most emotionally resonant book I’ve read this year.

Canadian writer Jeff Bursey‘s first book, Verbatim: A Novel, from Enfield & Wizenty, is told in letters between bureaucrats, political debates set in dual columns, and lists.