I’ve been meaning to get at Joyce Carol Oates for a while. I even heard her speak in the fall of 2009 at the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference (a grand old time). But yeah, it took me until fall 2011 to pick up one of her novels. And honestly, in part, this was because i was intimidated by the sheer volume of her bibliography. The woman has written over fifty novels (some YA, some for kids, most under the name of JCO, but some under one of her two noms de plume), as well as an impressive selection of drama, poetry, essay, memoir, and short stories. This woman is prolific. So how on earth, i wondered, was i supposed to pick just one work to start with?
In the end, it was a matter of convenience. Avery happened to have a copy of We Were the Mulvaneys on her shelf (which was, i believe, purchased at that same Women Writer’s Conference). WWtM is one of Oates’ more popular novels, perhaps due to its membership in Oprah’s book club.
What struck me the most about this novel, initially, was its male protagonist, Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaney brood. This not an interesting fact in and of itself, but i have found that men authors tend to write from the point of view of female protagonists more often than women write from male protagonists’ POV, at least in my reading experience. This aspect became even more intriguing when the central conflict of the novel became apparent: the rape of the protagonist’s sister, Marianne, and the repercussions this violent act cause in her life and in the lives of her family members.
Oates is masterful in the simultaneous primacy and mystery she grants Marianne—the reader is almost never given access to Marianne’s thoughts—indeed, for a good part of the novel, she is not even present. Yet, she remains in the forefront of the reader’s mind throughout, and the characters’ minds. In fact, i take back my designation of Judd as the novel’s protagonist simply because he is the one “telling” the story. In fact, Judd’s voice and perspective is often latent, resurfacing only at crucial intervals; the collective voice of the Mulvaney family, which tells the story of Marianne, speaks louder than Judd, who ultimately is little more than a figurehead.
In this sense and in many others, WWtM is a spectacularly subtle novel. Though it is driven by a violent, devastating act of rape, it refrains from becoming morose or frightening or, more to the point, either glamorizing or sensationalizing of the rape itself. The novel instead is permeated by an insidious tension, sadness, and silence that feels exceedingly authentic. *SPOILER ALERT* As a result of the rape, Marianne is sent to live with a distant relative; oldest son Michael moves out and becomes a drunken womanizer; middle son Patrick goes away to school and distances himself from the family; parents Michael and Corrine are forced to declare bankruptcy and sell the family farm; the Mulvaney family and Michael and Corrine’s marriage deteriorates. But none of this is dramatic or overwrought—rather, it is a slow, sneaking, sorrowful process. Oates is so good at drawing the reader in that i almost felt like these characters were my people, that their problems were my own.
It’s a depressing novel, no doubt, but in the best way, and doesn’t end on an overly sad note, either. If you want a dense, character-driven novel that you can sink into—and keeps you interested—We Were the Mulvaneys—or many of Oates numerous other titles, i’m sure—may be for you.