Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the second-last book I read

We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates.

This is the second JCO (as I like to call her) book to appear in this list (The Falls being the other), and there are certain obvious similarities: both books are pretty beefy (450+ pages) and feature sprawling family sagas taking place over a period of many years, sagas which feature the families concerned being subjected to various degrees of tragedy, suffering and general indignity throughout.

This particular family, the Mulvaneys, live (as we join the action) at High Point Farm, in upstate New York, near the town of Mt. Ephraim (fictional as far as I can tell, although there is a Mt. Ephraim in New Jersey). There's Mom & Dad aka Corinne and Michael, and children Michael Jr., Patrick, Marianne and Judd. Michael runs a roofing company, Corinne runs a fairly half-arsed and ramshackle antiques business and the rest of the family live a pretty idyllic existence at the farm, with various horses, dogs and cats for company.

Things start to unravel on Valentine's Day prom night in 1976, after which 16-year-old Marianne arrives home with a secret: she's been raped. A secret she manages to keep for a few days before the inevitable revelation and the start of the family's downward spiral: the family are unable to bring themselves to discuss the subject openly, Marianne is unwilling to make a formal complaint or press changes against her assailant as she was drunk on the night and can't remember all the details, Michael doles out a bit of vigilante justice against the boy in question (Marianne's schoolmate Zachary Lundt) and is arrested and subsequently ostracised by the local community.

After all this Marianne is sent away to live with her Aunt Ellen, elsewhere in New York state, and the family starts to break up. The farm has to be sold after Mike Sr.'s business troubles, Mike Jr. joins the Marines, and Patrick goes away to university at Cornell. While he is there he hatches a plan to take revenge on Zachary Lundt in a more efficient and permanent way than his father managed, and (with Judd's help) acquires a gun, kidnaps Lundt from outside a bar and takes him to a secluded spot with the intention of killing him, but is ultimately unable to go through with it.

Meanwhile Marianne is working in a succession of menial jobs and periodically fleeing to the next one when anyone starts to rely on her too much or show her any personal affection. So she flees her job at the Green Isle Co-op when her boss Abelove proposes to her out of the blue, and does the same from her next job as personal assistant to an elderly writer when she is offered extra responsibility and a pay rise. Carting her beloved (and increasingly elderly) cat from place to place with her, she is eventually forced to take him to an animal sanctuary, where after making a nuisance of herself she is eventually offered a job. Her eventual reconciliation with the rest of her family only comes when her father finally succeeds in his long-drawn-out mission of drinking himself to death, and Marianne makes a final dash to his death-bed.

The novel ends with a family reunion (after a gap of what must be about four years since Michael Sr.'s death) and a few glimmers of optimism at last - Corinne is running a more serious and successful version of her old antique business, Mike Jr. is now a civil engineer, husband and father, Patrick has become a sort of surf dude/alternative therapist type, Judd is editing the local newspaper and Marianne has married the vet who runs the animal sanctuary and now has two children. So all's well, seemingly, that ends well.

A couple of quibbles: Marianne's banishment was never really explained properly; I mean, of course fathers have strange reactions when something of this nature happens to their daughters (and we're led to understand that it was largely at Mike Sr.'s instigation that she was sent away), but it just struck a slightly implausible note to me. It was almost as if that was something that had to happen in order for the rest of the book to fall out in the way Oates had planned it, and she was too keen to get to that to bother explaining herself. Another slightly false note was struck by Marianne's abrupt transition from rabid intimacy-phobia for a decade or so (following what we're invited to infer was her one and only sexual experience) to happy marriage and motherhood. I mean, the redemptive power of love and all that, but still.

A couple of other footnotes: I can't find a definitive source for the quotation attributed to Gore Vidal about the three most depressing words in the English language being "Joyce Carol Oates", but it's mentioned in the comments to this brief LA Times article and also in this hugely entertaining hatchet job on Vidal by the inimitable Hitch. On the one hand I can see what he means, the misery being trowelled on pretty thick at times, but on the other hand it's really just Vidal being a cantankerous woman-hating old queen. For what it's worth, while I enjoyed this, I probably enjoyed it less than The Falls, and I'd suggest uninitiated readers start there.

One of the things that might have put me off buying this had it been displayed anywhere prominent (which it probably is on later editions) is that this novel was an Oprah's Book Club selection back in 2001. That's an entirely snobbish and unreasonable attitude to take, but I note that it's one that was also taken by Jonathan Franzen, whose The Corrections featured on the list in the same year. The other Oprah book choice on this list is The Road from 2007.

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