We Were the Mulvaneys

I recently picked up a book by Joyce Carol Oates at the airport on our way to spend a couple of days in Baja California, thinking I would need something to read at the beach—the one called We Were the Mulvaneys.

The San Francisco Chronicle said, in an excerpt printed on the back cover, “A grand, symphonic novel—one of Oates’ finest”. The New York Times Book Review, which I like and trust and actually read almost every week, said “What keeps us coming back to Oates Country is her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something happening on the other side that we’d swear was life itself”. The Detroit Free Press went so far as to say that this was “a book people will be reading a century from now, the way we read Dickens and Henry James”. So there I was, thinking I had it made, with a book that sounded highly readable while allowing me to avoid the mental self-stigma resulting from anesthetizing myself by just reading the latest Patricia Cornwell or Robert Parker potboiler. It seems to me that I had read at least one book by her a long, long time ago; although nothing on the “Other Books By” list rang a bell in particular. Still, I had a some image of incisive, insightful, human, storytelling.

This book, though, I am still trying to figure out. Or more accurately, I am afraid I have figured it out. I don’t really think it can just be a lightweight, poorly-told, drawn-out, cliche-laden, Sidney Sheldon-wannabe novel, right? I mean, Joyce Carol Oates (who is, let’s remember, the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University) would not actually write a book which essentially starts out as a cartoon of a inordinately happy American family in the mid-1970’s, then shifts unaccountably to being a different cartoon of a family in crisis and broken apart for reasons she never even attempts to elucidate, then finally reverts to a final, formulaic cartoon of a happy family having found itself once more, literally playing softball on a warm July afternoon at a family picnic; nor would she inexplicably fail to use the book to establish any viewpoint whatsoever on the nature of writing and fiction (something all authors do, right?

The closest she comes is the comment made by her stick-figure caricature of a poet, Penelope Hagstrom, who, in response to one character’s question “Can’t poetry be just what it is?” has nothing deeper to say than that “Nothing is, my dear. Only what our opinions make of it”. These two lines are literally the extent of anything bearing on literary criticism in the entire novel by someone who is ostensibly one of the top half-dozen active American novelists). She would not base a entire story around a date rape incident without finding any way to explore the subtleties of that topic with the reader, right? And she would not pen an entire book with virtually no surprises, synchronicities, or connections, whether disturbing or satisfying, right? And she would not carry on for 400+ pages in what quickly turns into a quite annoying writing style, with her run-on phrases, italics to paraphrase what someone was thinking, and frankly quite uninventive and often actually inappropriate not to mention downright ungrammatical turns of phrase, right? She probably imagines she is earning her keep by fulfilling her quota of at least one hyphenated adverb per page, such as “chalky-pale” and oh, please, her nasty verbal tic of using her favorite words like “carroty”and “pebbled” ad nauseum. And she would not fail to develop in any meaningful way even a single member of her cast of characters, would she?

So here were some of the theories I came up with. Maybe Joyce Carol Oates is really unhappy that John Grisham not only makes ten million bucks from his novels directly but then makes another five or ten or who knows how much from the movie rights, and she was trying to write a novel that could be flipped quickly onto the big screen. I mean, you don’t want too much intellectual activity or character development or, God forbid, self-referentiality, in a movie script for Christ’s sake, and this book dutifully skips any and all of that kind of thing. The pictures she paints, whether it be the reds and oranges of the lush autumn foliage at the Mulvaney’s idyllic farm in upstate New York during their happy family phase, or the cliched, filthy flophouse where Mike Mulvaney Sr. ends up after his tragic reversal of fortune, or many others, one can certainly imagine looking quite grand on the silver screen in the hands of the right director; and all the stock characters Oates trots out, ranging from the silver-haired aunt with her hair in a bun, to the loony spiritual leader trying to sleep with all the cute female acolytes, would certainly not challenge the casting director. The plot development is just about the right level of shallowness for an easy movie going for, say, 98 minutes.

But that’s a little bit mean. It’s probably more likely that what Oates was really doing was a extremely sophisticated criticism of all of the lightweight, easy summer reading novels that are floating around today. The index of just how sophisticated is that not once does she allude directly to the sardonic ulterior motives of the book, not even a casual mention or putdown-in-passing of one of the books she is trying to pan, to the degree, in fact, that not even a well-educated reader like myself, albeit one who is by no means a literature expert, can detect those motives until nearly through the entire book. Oates fashions the most potent possible indictment of all against the low-level, deadening, superficial, repetitive popular literature of our time: namely a perfect replica of that literature itself, droning on interminably for an incredible 454 pages.

Or here is a variation on this theme: perhaps Oates is making a veiled criticism of the currently in-vogue theory of the narrative viewpoint in modern fiction. Maybe she got tired of teaching about this in her graduate seminars and is just trying to say, look, does it really matter so much, goddamn it, can’t we just get over this fixation on the integrity of the narrator structure and pick any old narrator we want, preferably randomly, except that it might actually be better to choose someone in “Mulvaneys” such as Judd who is actually so far away, both physically and emotionally, from much of the action, that the poor guy will have to spend most of his time framing the story in clumsy constructions like “Marianne must have been thinking that” or “I later found out that”, in a way that makes “It was a dark and stormy night” seem like Proust?

But perhaps this also misses the point. The proximate topic of the story is rape, and how it destroyed a family. I don’t want to take anything away from the suspenseful ending of this novel, but the story is basically that there is this really happy and successful family, then the cheerleader daughter gets date-raped, and then everything falls apart for the whole family, I mean the business failing, losing the farm, one brother dropping out of school, parents divorced, father turning into an alcoholic bum, and so forth, except that in the last few pages they sort of miraculously get back together and are one big happy family again except for dad who died. Anyway, we can assume that Oates is not really trying to say something about rape, since she, umh, didn’t say anything about it. So she must be trying to say something more complex. Maybe that in a family happiness is fleeting, stability a mere mirage, either subject to being brutally overturned at any moment by any random occurrence? But then again, if this theory is to be correct, shouldn’t Oates have provided us with at least one clue relating to the potential unhappiness or instability, showing how the rape then tore apart the family along the pre-existing fracture lines? Or shown us, conversely, how the long wavy lines of continuity between the 1975 Leave-it-to-Beaver familial bliss and the happily-reunited-once-again family of 1993 managed to cross that abyss of the deepest imaginable pain?

But perhaps we got sidetracked here, and in spite of appearances Oates is really at some level trying to address the topic of rape. This book was written in 1997, when if I recall correctly date rape was a topic of some degree of urgent social attention. A message that could have made sense if Oates had bothered to try to tell it would have been one about how individuals and families and communities and society at large deals with rape, or could deal with it, or should deal with it. The story told in this book is essentially what results when people react in a panicked, frantic, horrified, judgmental, and paralyzed way; and how those reactions on the part of a group of people can multiply themselves geometrically as they interact. The story would have been useful had she shed the least amount of light on the deeper origins of those types of counterproductive reactions, or showed us ways to overcome them, or painted scenarios of how things could be. In the end, Oates ends up doing none of these things, telling no story, and making no point at all.

One Response to “We Were the Mulvaneys”

  1. DL Wilk Says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

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