We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
But the critic must be making “judgments.” Fussing, arranging, ranking, comparing. Balancing his primary statements with however, on the other hand. . . . In effect ruining his relationship with the artist. One cannot be friends, one cannot be friendly, with anyone who is ranking us or objectifying us so relentlessly.
—The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, March 15, 1978
The old questions: “How good is Joyce Carol Oates?” and, given an oeuvre so vast, “Where can you begin to find out?” These questions have been reinvigorated in recent years. Oates’s reputation had always been precarious, marred by a critical suspicion of her copiousness and of her bestseller-adjacent tastes and interests. It seems to have crested in the 1980s and ’90s—that Toni Morrison usurped Oates’s Nobel Prize was the opinion of even one distinguished black novelist, Charles Johnson—and then to have waned in the 2000s. But in the last decade, and especially in the last few months, thanks to the controversial film of her Marilyn Monroe novel and to a sideline in Twitter shitposting almost as accomplished as that of the former president she so abhors, Oates has seemed to stand at the apex of her vanishing generation. After the deaths of Updike, Roth, Morrison, and Didion, and amid the more sibylline reticence of her remaining peers (Ozick, McCarthy, DeLillo, Pynchon), isn’t she the last lioness of American literature?
So how good is she? And where to begin to find out? I’ve read a handful of short novels and short stories over the years—see my little essay on her First Love: A Gothic Tale—but decided that now was the time to scale one of the peaks. Despite her legendary productivity—60 novels or more, 40 more books of poems, stories, plays, essays, journals—readers seem to agree in judging a few of the longer titles as masterpieces: the realist Them, the neo-Gothic Bellefleur, and the Monroe epic Blonde among them. Not knowing anything about Marilyn Monroe, I chose another oft-mentioned candidate, We Were the Mulvaneys, because this 1996 family saga belongs to a group of summative ’90s novels written by Silent-Generation authors approaching both their own late middle age and the turn of the millennium: Paradise, for example, or Underworld or American Pastoral. And We Were the Mulvaneys resembles American Pastoral in form as well: in both novels, a first-person narrator adopts a third-person narrator’s omniscient privilege to tell of one middle-class American family’s self-destruction in the late 20th century. If young women possessed by extremist ideology destroy Roth’s Levovs of New Jersey, then Oates’s Mulvaneys are felled by the opposite force: the conservative masculine forces preying on young women and moreover justifying this predation.
Why do the Mulvaneys merit the title’s doom-laden past tense? Because this upwardly-mobile family—the Irish Catholic urban-born father Michael, the German Protestant farm-girl mother Corinne, and their brood of four children at the storybook High Point Farm in Western New York—goes into decline when Marianne, their saintly cheerleader daughter, is raped by a classmate; when Michael and Corinne, possessed by shame, subsequently disown her; and when the most intellectual of the brothers, the Darwin-obsessed Patrick, plots revenge—all of this narrated in impassioned prose by the youngest brother, Judd, in the aftermath of the catastrophe and its resolution.
But this summary of male violence and female victimization makes the novel sound more agenda-driven than it is, when in fact it is less didactic than Roth’s book. In Oates’s fiction as on her notorious Twitter feed, we encounter an exoteric politics at odds with an esoteric aesthetics. She is officially a feminist, but her criticism hints that she finds the classic female domestic novel insipid, is bored by the enlightened domestics Austen and Eliot, and considers herself the heir to fanatic, fascistic Dostoevsky and Lawrence. As in Dostoevsky, her characters seethe and roil, actuated by unconscious manias and half-uttered desires; as in Lawrence, she sets the human drama in its natural frame, amid animal heat, stony cliffs, sucking bogs, killing winds, as if to say that we are a part of nature—of its hideous violence as of its pastoral beauty or poetic sublimity—and shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise. One of Judd’s earliest visions is of a doe chased by a pack of hounds: rape rising right out of the earth. The farm itself is enclosed in the stony mountain prison of the old glacial ridge:
Now you’re in the foothills of the Chautauqua Mountains and those are the mountains in the distance ahead: wooded slopes that look carved, floating. Mt. Cataract is the highest at 2,300 feet above sea level, chalky at its peak, visible on clear days though it’s thirty miles away. It looks like a hand doesn’t it? Marianne used to say like someone waving to us.
The novel stages a debate between the Darwinist Patrick and the novel’s religious women, Corinne and Marianne, about whether or not we are doomed to be as amoral, as dysteleological, as ultimately meaningless as nature:
“[The eye is] so amazing. How a mechanism so intricate and ingenious evolved out of blind matter. Who could have imagined an eye, eyesight, in the dark?”
Marianne had risen unobtrusively to clear the table. She shook her head, with a wan smile. “Someone with an ingenious imagination,” she said softly.
“Hmmm! Very funny, Marianne.”
Vehemently Patrick continued to speak, not knowing what he said or why, at this moment, he was driven to say it; the words long pent-up, the solitude of his life erupting suddenly, in a passion he hadn’t known he possessed. Marianne moved quietly and surely clearing the table, rinsing the dishes, all the while listening to Patrick, murmuring words of assent or surprise, occasionally wincing as if his sharp words hurt. Somehow Patrick had swerved from the subject of science’s great mysteries to humankind’s collective failure. These were thoughts he’d had numerous times, in high school even, but he’d never spoken of them to another person before. “Look, it’s so damned depressing! Why after all this time, all that science has discovered, the human race is so ignorant. So superstitious and cruel. Consider: the Nazis murdered sixteen million men, women, and children; Stalin murdered twenty million; even more millions—more!—were victims of Chinese Communist ‘ideology.’ Just in the twentieth century alone. Our civilized century. That’s the mystery, not nature—why human beings are so vile.”
Marianne had come to stand staring at Patrick, her eyes almost frightened. “Patrick, you sound so angry.”
“Shouldn’t I be? Why aren’t you?”
And Oates suffuses the novel from the beginning with the sights and smells and sounds of animal life, the narrative rioting and teeming, even to the point of sentimentality, with the cries of parrots, the purring of cats, the plaintive appeals of dogs, and even, in a rescue zoo that appears in the novel’s final pages, more exotic animals from monkeys to elephants to bobcats:
And finally I did kneel with Mom, one last time, and we prayed together each of us in silence in the cramped little room at the rear of the “split-level ranch” on Post Road which was our last shared home even if it was never a home. Both Foxy and Little Boots crowded eagerly against us, nudged their damp anxious noses against us begging Us, too! Us, too! Don’t forget us, too!
This animal love along with the novel’s otherwise mysterious epigraph from Whitman—the well-known last lines of Song of Myself—hint that Oates, despite the naturalist and Gothic fatedness looming over her work, finally accepts the American Transcendentalist solution to this problem: humanity and nature interpenetrate, each illuminating the other, so that our moral and aesthetic commitments, our attempts to remake the world, are as much a part of nature as nature’s amoral and anti-social violence of desire, its brutal rapine, are part of us. Marianne’s visionary perception of the mountain as a hand raised in greeting proves morally prophetic.
With this implied secular-mystical creed of compassion, Oates shows as much imaginative command of the human world as of the animal, at home everywhere in the broad American middle-class of her regional setting, from drunken indigence to academic hauteur and all the aspiration in between, until the long novel becomes a convincing material and spiritual chronicle of the 1970s and ’80s, one notably at odds with the official histories of bust-and-boom as it mourns (with the Christian liberal Corinne) the failure of the Carter administration and dwells on those left behind by Reagan’s revolution. Oates abounds with facts, things, images, stories; she introduces new settings and characters almost to the final page. If the novel feels less focused, more formless, than peer works by Roth or Morrison, to refuse its abundance finally comes to seem ungenerous.
Why, then, the controversy about whether or not she’s a good writer—even leaving aside the irrelevant question of how much she writes or of the popular-feminine genres she often favors? Bluntly put, the relevant problem is the prose. We find no fine writing, no will-to-style, no singular voice in Oates (neither in this book nor in any other work of hers that I’ve read): nothing like Updike’s lyric pointillism, Roth’s eloquent rage, Morrison’s scriptural orature, DeLillo’s mediatic staccato, McCarthy’s Biblical cadence, Didion’s knowing minimalism. Instead, there are clichés and imprecisions and redundancies, my favorite being an early reference to “animals and fowl,” as if the latter category were not included in the former. There are exclamation points, italics, interjections, sentence fragments, strangely-deployed quotation marks—all adding up to an urgent anti-style. I am ungenerously reminded of the apocryphal line about the similarly astylistic Dreiser: he had no talent, only genius. It is in retrospect bizarre—truly an instance of racial ideology—that anyone suspected the Swedish Academy of choosing Morrison over Oates for the 1993 Nobel Prize on the grounds of “political correctness” when I imagine that even a Swedish translation must convey which of the two writers is the exceptional stylist, the poet of prose.
Oates accomplishes her fiction’s very real emotional effect with sheer accretion and insistence; the novel is like the wind that batters High Point Farm, a constant unglamorous roar insinuating itself through the walls of your mind. Her major characters—in this novel, the fluttery and formidable Corinne, “Protestant to her fingertips,” is a particularly glorious creation—seem hacked with a claw hammer out of stone. This, too, is an inheritance of Dostoevsky and Lawrence, as well as of Charlotte Brontë, one of the few writers named in this impressively un-literary novel. I think it is a legitimate way to write fiction, if superficially less commanding than the line-by-line vigor of a Morrison. For these anti-poetic writers, the novelist uses language to surpass language, to strike through to the core of reality—psychological, natural, and spiritual reality—over which language decorously draws its ornamented veil.
This conviction serves the provocatively faux-earnest Twitter troll, as when Oates notoriously (but to mind sensibly) inquired in 2015, “All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?” But it furnishes energy enough to animate as well an almost 500-page novel about how one family’s story is also nothing less than the story of all America and of all life on earth. Her own “puritanical” refusal of style creates a “celebratory & joyous” Whitmanian efflorescence that transcends its seemingly meager verbal means. Before we know how she did it, she’s ahead of us, stopping for us, waiting for us. She’s good.
Wonderful review! I love the way you take her to task, and then wind around to why she’s actually good. She is a mixed bag. I’ve only read a few short stories and then Bellefluer, which I loved. I tried a couple more of her novels but couldn’t get into them, including the Mulvaney’s. Maybe I’ll give it another try.
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