Reviewed by Zohra Nasir
With over fifty novels, a number of volumes of short stories, children’s books, and non-fiction works published since 1963, it seems Joyce Carol Oates has been hacking away at a typewriter non-stop since the moment she learnt her alphabets. The Princeton professor has made a place for herself writing Gothic novels, often rife with violence and surrealism. Mudwoman is Oates’ latest psychological thriller, in which she treads the fine line between madness and sanity, reality and dreams, and past and present. How successful it is really depends on how much the reader can engage with Oates’ style, which is verbose and unstructured, perhaps an acquired taste.
The book is about Meredith “M.R.” Neukirchen, a woman who has achieved great professional success. She is the first female president of a prestigious university, and quite a celebrated academic but suffers from crippling loneliness and insecurity. The story follows her breakdown and descent into madness at the very peak of her career. An encounter with the past that sets off the process — M.R. visits the place where she, as a toddler, was abandoned in mud like trash, and left to die by her religious zealot mother. Here, the “Mudgirl” of childhood and “Mudwoman” of the present find each other in M.R.’s fevered brain, and here her unraveling begins.
In a narrative that leaps back and forth through time, we learn the story of an abusive childhood, an awkward adolescence, an unfulfilling romance, unsatisfied dreams, professional problems, and a multitude of paralysing anxieties, a story that culminates into total hysteria. She loses her grip on reality, and is tormented by dreams and hallucinations about death, murder, dismemberment and rape, full of images stemming from places in her past that she was never fully aware of.
Alongside all this emotional turmoil is the intellectual conversation: Oates hammers out her opinions on politics, religion, morality, ethics, philosophy, education, and womens’ rights through M.R., who constantly laments that as a public figure she is not allowed to express opinions.
The key conflict seems to be between M.R. and her femininity. Although she says that she has never once been discriminated against as a woman, it is precisely her femininity that becomes the big issue. Albeit professionally successful, M.R. is the subjugated woman, ignored by her lover, used as a figurehead and a “workhorse” by her colleagues, considered capable but naïve by her advisors, and unsatisfied by her personal life. She is the stereotypical picture of the woman who has success but a gaping hole in her heart where a man and family should be — her secret, stifled dream is to be married, and she relinquishes it for the man she loves.
In fact, she perceives her success as a consequence of this absence, admitting that she worked so hard “because Andre didn’t want me,” and that she “lost faith in herself as a woman”. She is obsessed with her sexuality or lack thereof, unsure of everything she says, and always under the influence of one man or the other. Every time she makes a decision contrary to what the men in her life advice (meeting a litigious student herself, or deciding to drive up country), it ends in disaster. The men in her life, in contrast — her adoptive father Konrad, her lover Andre Litovik, and her friend-enemy Oliver Kroll — are learned men with strong opinions and self-confidence, who exert control over M.R. and whom she is constantly trying to please.
The narrative voice is very close to the protagonist and seems to be the protagonist thinking of herself in third person. There is plenty of repetition, capitalisation, questioning and use of synonyms, as though it is the hesitant, apologetic and self-conscious M.R. weighing her words and speaking. As her thoughts are halting and hesitant, the prose becomes stilted, and as she thinks in feverish, post-dream moments of clarity, the sentences run on longer. The latter half of the novel seems to completely lack a coherent structure, and it becomes difficult for the reader to locate herself in time, or figure out what is real and what is not, reflecting M.R.’s own state of mind.
While the technique is creative, the execution is flawed. The amount of repetition, the use of italics and dashes, the vast number of cut-off and run-on sentences, and the overwhelming excess of words makes the prose frustrating to read. At one point the novel dedicates eight and a half pages to M.R.’s difficulty with a sink and thus being late for guests who are waiting downstairs. On occasion, Oates comes through with a unique and compelling image, but it always loses force as it is submerged beneath layers of wasted words and academic jargon. M.R. mentions that her work is that of “words; walls, barriers, concentric circles of words like the rings of Saturn” — this is exactly the feeling the novel gives off, of words spinning around in circles, acting as a barrier rather than a mediator between the reader and the story.
By Joyce Carol Oates