Friday, November 18, 2011

Widow (2011)

Author: Michelle Latiolais
Title: Widow: Stories
Publisher: Bellevue Press
Price: $14.95
LCC: PS3562.A7585 W53 2011

In "Hoarding,"  Michelle Latiolais describes an emotionally adrift protagonist.  Driving around Los Angeles, Latiolais's heroine hears on the radio that a new study has determined that aging does not make one smell. The news does not come as a relief. The story's nameless protagonist thinks differently. "We smell of longing. . . we smell of desire; we smell of how unseemly these desires are at our age." She tries to console herself. "You're not really old," she thinks. But the effort is halfhearted and she knows regardless of her age that her heart is weak and wounded and she feels pain in her chest.

Widow is Michelle Latiolais's meditation on loss, pain, and trying to capture that experience into words. Although the titular widow is not Latiolais herself, the author lost her husband seven years after a bout of depression led him to take his own life. Widow collects Latiolais stories from the past fifteen years, some written before her loss and some after the fact. Literary theorist Elaine Scarry has written that pain entails the destruction of language, but as Latiolais made clear on KCRW's Bookworm, these stories attempt to defy Scarry's proclamation. Rather than capitulate to the idea that pain entails the loss of meaning, Latiolais shapes language in order to express the somatic experience that grief entails. It is a careful record of grief and of loneliness and it is scientific in its accuracy.

In her effort to capture these experiences, there is a type of quiet lyricism that permeates throughout  Widow. Rather than tell straightforward continuous narratives, most of Latiolais's stories record small moments in time: the stupid comments of a gynecologist, the color of a tea cup, the feeling of boredom at church, the awkward chatter at a dinner party, the feel of a cotton napkin, an awkward date with a speed reader instructor. In a mode reminiscent of Joan Didion's novels, these experiences are recorded in a sometime fragmentary or associative manner, however the total adds up to more than the sum of the parts. There is an indirectness to these stories, but Latiolais meditates on the minute in order to address emotions of a greater magnitude.

While many of the characters are obviously inspired by Latiolais, only once is the primary character unquestionably the author. More often than not, Latiolais refuses to name her central characters. Sometimes her protagonist is "the young woman," sometimes she tells her own story in the first person, but more often than not she is simply "she." I imagine that relying on the third person feminine pronoun made it easier for Latiolais to write these stories. By not having to produce a named character--someone with a whole biography--it may have made it easier for her to focus on those small moments that constitute the characters' widowhood. This lack of specificity also has an effect on the reader (or at least this reader). For the vagueness of the word "she" produces a text that is more open to reader participation. It becomes easier for the reader to enter into the text, perhaps to accept the experiences of the protagonist as his or her own. This is not to say that Widow presents the reader with the short-story-as-therapy. While therapy is important, it gives the reader a much more valuable experience: communion.

For this reason, Widow might not always be breezy reading. But it possesses an honesty and an intimacy that we encounter only too infrequently. For that alone, it's worth sitting down with it and reading, however slowly, however carefully.

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