Book review: Mudwoman

US writer Joyce Carol Oates, author of Mudwoman. Picture: AFP
US writer Joyce Carol Oates, author of Mudwoman. Picture: AFP
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VIA a miraculous survivor, Joyce Carol Oates traces the American dream’s descent into nightmare

Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t often take on overtly political situations in her novels. Her politics tend to be sexual politics or the politics of class.

The exploitation of working-class girls in particular, and the way that sexual power is entwined with class power, concern novels like Foxfire, Beasts and Blonde. Danger from harm overhangs all these worlds, the young women in them constantly under threat. How they deal with that threat is the subject of her work.

In Mudwoman, Carol Oates once again takes as her subject a devastated figure from the foothills of the Adirondacks, the kind of America that rarely makes it into Hollywood films. This America is the America of abandoned mills and rotting trees, a landscape full of failure and torn clothing, jimsonweed and “refrigerators with doors flung open like empty arms”. Through this landscape that looks war-torn, wanders a deranged young mother and her little girl, whose scalp she has scraped with a razor, and whom she will fling into the mudflats, a little girl she will leave to die.

From a politically charged beginning that casts blame at a wealthier America that lets little girls suffocate in mud, Carol Oates then fast forwards almost 40 years to show us that same little girl, grown up as Meredith Ruth or “M.R.” as she prefers to be known (and which looks like ‘Mr’, one fellow professor informs her) and the first female president of an Ivy League university.

The journey from the mudflats to the university, from a brutal landscape to a lush and privileged one, is of course the journey of the American dream, and one that Carol Oates has always exposed and undermined in her fiction.

From the outside, it does indeed look as though M.R. has overcome her appalling beginnings – she was rescued from the mud by an almost mythical backward woodsman, fostered first by a chaotic but kindly foster mother and then adopted by a loving Quaker couple who had lost their own first daughter to illness – to achieve that dream.

But M.R. is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and mirrored in her state of mind is that of her country’s: it is 2003 and the US is on the verge of war with Iraq. If America is a country born out of the mud by pioneers and immigrants who built it up, then M.R. is a symbol of their courage and struggle.

Now, both are facing tragedy, their identities split down the middle. M.R. is haunted increasingly by her first beginnings as she tries to maintain a sense of selfhood.

She has a secret lover, a married man, Andre Litovik, who cannot leave his wife and son for her; she cannot face visiting her adoptive parents, even though they need her, because she knows she is only a replacement for the child they lost; she has badly handled a confrontation with a right-wing student who has threatened to sue the university over an assault he claims took place on campus.

This last issue is the one that tips M.R. over the edge. The student, Alexander Stirk, is gay but cites his assault on him not as homophobic but as political. The media is full of right-wing jingoism as war is contemplated, and Stirk, taping his conversation with M.R., will go to the internet and add to the rabid patriotism of the debate.

M.R. has philosophical arguments about what it means to be a “self”; Carol Oates takes that notion to a political end and charges the former leaders of her country not only with an unjust war that will kill hundreds of thousands of people, but also with destroying a proper sense of the self, of undermining hearts and minds with lies and jingoism and right-wing policies – the effect of this kind of atmosphere, she says, is madness and suicide.

And as we witness M.R. sinking deeper into a psychological mire, the destruction of a woman’s psyche is like the destruction of a nation’s psyche.

In her most overtly political novel, Carol Oates makes startling yet appropriate and powerful analogies that demand thought and attention, whilst never detracting from the intimacy and emotion the tale of an individual demands. It is both huge and small at the same time, close and expansive, personal and epic. «

Joyce Carol Oates

Fourth Estate, £16.99