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By Joyce Carol Oates
Among my favorite pieces of advice I give my graduate students is: Don’t write a story about a ball rolling down a hill. Flannery O’Connor argued something similar when she said that the ending to a story must be surprising yet inevitable. In fiction, what’s simply inevitable is predictable. When you roll a ball down a hill, there’s only one way for it to go.
In her latest novel, “Breathe,” Joyce Carol Oates ignores this advice to powerful effect. Here, the ball rolling down the hill is Gerard McManus, esteemed Harvard professor of the history of science, who has embarked on an eight-month residency at the Santa Tierra Institute for Advanced Research in New Mexico. But when we meet Gerard, he has, at 48, been transferred to the Santa Tierra Cancer Center. Disaster comes quickly: “Kidney stent. Pulmonary embolism. Adenocarcinoma. Venous thrombosis. Gastrointestinal consultant. Gallbladder ultrasound. Echocardiogram. CT brain scan. MRI. fMRI. Radiation, chemotherapy, immunology. Transition to hospice care.” In a matter of months, the Great Man is reduced to nothing, cocooned in an opioid sleep.
But the true boulder careening down the hill is Gerard’s second wife, Michaela. Only 37 (she seems much older than that), she has been married to Gerard for 12 years and is the author of two published memoirs. When she’s not holding vigil by Gerard’s hospital bed, she’s teaching a weekly memoir workshop at the University of New Mexico, 30 miles away. Even under the best of circumstances, Michaela sees her own work as inconsequential: She is but a dim star illuminated by Gerard’s sun.
“Breathe” is divided into two parts, “The Vigil” and “Post-Mortem,” but if anything, Gerard seems more alive in death than he does in life, vivified by Michaela’s grief. Told by the institute to return home, Michaela refuses to fly back to Cambridge. She tries to complete Gerard’s latest book, but she finds large sections missing. Like many a grieving spouse, she sees her dead husband everywhere, only her sightings are outright hallucinations. She has false memories of a botched bone marrow transplant in which she ends up paralyzed. She gets a voice mail message that Gerard hasn’t died; it’s all been a terrible mistake. Mysterious scratches appear on her arms, though she has no memory of having tried to harm herself. Parts of her face seem missing to her; a section of her left arm begins to disappear.
Interestingly, for a character who, on the face of things, is so rooted in the past, Michaela seems shorn of history. This is clearly intentional on Oates’s part. In another kind of novel, we might wonder if Michaela had siblings. We might ask about her parents, who at the beginning of the book have been dead for decades, but who later appear to be alive and out of touch, though it’s a distinction without a difference. Gerard has adult children from a previous marriage, but they, too, remain in the shadows. Even Michaela and Gerard’s marriage remains largely unplumbed; we have little sense of their daily life before Gerard got sick. Oates isn’t interested in exploring their marriage. She’s interested in grief in real time, in Michaela in extremis, “like one who has pressed too close to a wall, and cannot see the wall.”
“Breathe” is a fever dream of a novel, and it’s as an allegory of grief that it most sparkles. What appears to be hallucination is actually more emotionally complicated. “Your husband has not died, it is you who have died. … Without Gerard she is beginning to lose Michaela.” “Breathe” is also a moving meditation on grief time, where there is no beginning, no end, and “each hour, each day, passes with excruciating slowness yet it is all happening very quickly.” And true to O’Connor’s dictum, Oates lands the book’s wonderful ending. The bottom of the hill, it turns out, can be both surprising and inevitable.