“You, Charlie, must realize, now — a little late, you might believe — that he who marries a novelist must expect to see himself in print long before he sees himself in clover.”
Remarks Given by Richard Ford and Elaine Showalter
September 26, 2009
When Joyce — clearly in a fit of desperation — asked me to “say a few words,” I instantly imaginatively leaped to the fantasy that what I’d be doing was “giving the bride away” … in the manner of a harmless, boozy, bad-tempered old uncle who “gives the bride away” when the bride’s father won’t — such as when there’s an unwieldy estrangement; when the father, say, disapproves of the groom because he’s a dead-beat or a jail-bird or a gold-digger or doesn’t have a proper job — things like that — and the father boycotts the ceremony and stays on his yacht in Boca Grande, with his pilates-instructor girlfriend.
That’s not precisely the case here, obviously — since the bride and groom already ran off like sex-depraved teens and got married in secret across the state line where officials don’t pay any attention to how old you are.
But my version, at least, makes a nice little story — somewhat more interesting than these rather anti-climactic nuptials we’re celebrating today.
In my fictional version, the uncle (me) who “gives the bride away” does so only because he knows (as I do) how singular and lovely and deserving — and at least apparently fragile — the bride is, and therefore wants everything to be perfect for her. Or, if it can’t be perfect, wants at least that it be persuasive as a happy story. Which reminds us, of course, of who’s gotten married here — Joyce has. And everything Joyce undertakes — including … (yes, Charlie) … including marriage — becomes a literary concoction with a fictive dimension. And therefore the groom — perhaps a dead-beat, perhaps not (all this will be found out as the plot develops) — the groom is hereby put on notice that he can ignore this literary dimension only at his peril. Since everything he’s seeing today, he’ll pretty soon be seeing again, including himself and all his qualities — those good and less good — put on surgical display on some page somewhere. Perhaps even his name will be used, possibly with a different spelling, though possibly not even that). And because he and Joyce chose to elope as they did, and forsook the cautionary formalities of a long courtship, or an engagement, or dating, (or, some local skeptics would say, even forsook the formality of an actual acquaintanceship), the groom has therefore forsaken the chance to think long about his prospective act, as well as the chance to complain about anything, or to be granted a reprieve, or even a hearing. You, Charlie, must realize, now — a little late, you might believe — that he who marries a novelist must expect to see himself in print long before he sees himself in clover. The groom has been blessed with long life, it’s true. But art is much, much longer.
And so, carrying forward the theme of art-and-Iife, I’ll tell you that in our now, decades-long friendship — one of the very dearest of my life — one of the joys has been (and all of you who’re Joyce friends know and share this) … one of the joys has been to be intermittently invented by Joyce. If not on the actual page (I pray not), then bracingly in real life. More than anybody I know, Joyce gives us back to ourselves. She portrays us, in her various relations with us, in ways that try to balance how we want to be seen, with how she perceives us and believes we actually are. This, of course, is why all of her friends slightly fear her — since she sometimes seems willing to be sweetly fooled by us, but just not for very long. In a way, though, that’s genuinely humane — if not always entirely merciful — Joyce seems to relish the fact that we’re all of us made up of different, ill-fitting qualities that’re bundled together in who we seem to want to be. And I’ve noticed that she generously, patiently tries to give space and credit to all of those qualities. Over the nearly 30 years I’ve known Joyce, I myself have, from time to time, occupied — or been assigned — a variety of roles. Some are rightly mine. Some are invented by her. Occasionally I’ve acted as her surrogate brother — whom she speaks to in intimate brotherly ways; Occasionally I’ve been a high-school cut-up, requiring toe-tapping indulgence; I’ve been a thug, requiring make-believe fear; I’ve been a simpleton — the role I most naturally inhabit; I’ve been someone’s husband requiring counsel; I’ve been her staunch defender. And I’ve been even mistaken for a writer. And although Joyce may not embrace and adore each and every thing we are, she tries — which is the point here — to love us entire, and succeeds in being that rare person whose affection and self can make us like ourselves better, since she never holds our many selves against us. Or not much, anyway.
But then of course … maybe I’m just making Joyce up, myself. Love — and marriage, too — occasionally require that. Henry James (who, for fairly sound reasons, never married) spoke about marriage with unaccustomed brevity, when he said that ” … If I were to marry, I should try to think just a little better about life than I actually do.” — which can be art’s responsibility, and is squarely in the spirit of a happy occasion like this one today. Marriage should make us think a little better about life than we otherwise would.
We all of us who love you, Joyce, feel a little tug at our hearts today that you may not have as much time, now, to make us up as you have had in the past, since you’ve chosen to bestow those great, loving, exacting, human reserves of attention onto Charlie, here — who’s been put on notice. Our lives threaten to be a little paler now, a little less specified, perhaps a little less terrified. But on this day, it’s we who see you vividly, and we all of us together give you away with love.
I first met Joyce in the Princeton University Library in 1978. I recognized her from her picture in the Town Topics and went over & said hello. That was about sixty books ago, almost all hers, and a dozen hair-dos, almost all mine. Of course Joyce was already very famous and celebrated then, but she was not yet what I think of as the Full Joyce. She was at the beginning of her Middle Period, moving from the University of Windsor to the Ivy League, and from the laid-back Canadian social style to the American academic world of competitive cooking. I became one of Joyce’s first girlfriends in Princeton, and I feel that I am speaking this evening in behalf of all of us, because Joyce has never been one of those acclaimed women intellectuals who preferred male intellectual company. As you may know, she didn’t think much of her college sorority, but she always enjoyed hanging out with other women, and back in the day when Joyce ate lunch, we actually had ladies’ lunches. In fact there are enough of us here tonight to make up a pretty good sorority chapter of our own: Gamma Omega, Girlfriends of Oates.
Over the years, I occasionally got to be Joyce’s plus-one at various daytime events. I tagged along with her to a luncheon at a New York hotel when she won an award as a woman of the year along with Shelley Winters, and I had to restrain her from chucking away her award statuette or little plaque or whatever it was in the bin right there in the ladies’ room. (“Just wait until we get out of the building”) Two years ago I accompanied her to the White House where Laura Bush was hosting the National Book Festival breakfast, and we restrained each other from heckling although not from passing notes during the speech from the basketball players. Whatever the occasion, the audience, the agenda, Joyce has always been both funny and fearless. Despite being a genius, she’s mighty good company. I think I speak for all the girlfriends when I say we admire her, of course, but we also love her.
Charlie is funny and fearless as well, but some folks might wonder if he and Joyce have some cultural differences to overcome. He’s a red diaper baby, she’s a blue collar baby. Charlie’s an urban Brooklyn boy; Joyce is a girl from the North Country. While he was maniacally racking up his merit badges to become one of the youngest-ever Eagle Scouts, Joyce was memorizing three hundred Bible verses to win a week at a Methodist Bible Camp near Lake Ontario—one of those proverbial competitions in which 2nd prize must be two weeks at camp. While she was writing her first novels and getting her first story published in Seventeen magazine, he was doing a research project on plant succession and dialectical materialism for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He was organizing a Pete Seeger concert at Harvard while Joyce was still trying to get out of her sorority at Syracuse. As my parents warned me when English and I decided to get married: “These mixed marriages never work out.” That was 45 years ago but it never hurts to be careful.
So I’ve brought along a few gifts to give Joyce & Charlie a good start in the culture department. For Charlie a Red Diaper baby tote bag to carry to poetry readings. For Joyce, a Mao pin and some books about growing up Red. For both of them as totally assimilated Jews some refrigerator magnets of the Hebrew alphabet .
In an interview she gave on one of my favorite of her novels A Bloodsmoor Romance, which ends with five weddings, Joyce told the skeptical interviewer:
“Why can’t a narrative have a genuinely happy ending, or even five happy endings? We know in life that people do get married, and sometimes it works out well. People do fall in love … and all writers are in fact Romantics, because the very act of writing is a Romantic activity.”
Joyce and Charlie deserve a happy ending, maybe even five of them. Here’s to the future romantic activity of a couple who put Benifer and Brangelina in the shade—Joyce Carol Oates and Charlie Gross, otherwise known as CHOYCE.