Though midterm blues and wet bike seats may plague us this season, these drudgeries simply enhance the appeal of escaping into Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional worlds. Famous for her novels that, like sea-weary gulls, guide the reader off toward gloomy, landlocked locales of the western New York variety, Oates works her descriptive magic yet again in her 1996 novel “We Were the Mulvaneys.” She begins by dropping us in the all-American, made-up town of Mount Ebrahim, just outside of which is situated the farm of the Mulvaney family.
A hearty, rambunctious clan, the Mulvaneys are headed by Michael and Corinne Mulvaney, two parents who met young, had four children and still manage to be helplessly in love with each other. While Michael runs a successful roofing company, Corinne sells antiques in the back of the house, her attachment for each object too effusive for her to sell much at reasonable prices. Both parents pride themselves on their affection toward each other and their children: Michael Jr. (the athlete), Patrick (the twiggy intellectual), Marianne (the good Christian cheerleader) and Judd (the nervous youngest sibling, who narrates part of the story). From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Mulvaney family thrives as an ideal of small-town American life. Oates spends the first section of the book underscoring their purity and their lovability as a group of people with almost mushy detail, only to plunge them into crisis one St. Valentine’s night in 1976.
Marianne, popular enough as a junior to be voted prom queen, goes to a party the night of the dance. She is too intoxicated to remember the event clearly, and on her way home she is raped by an upperclassman whose father is a respected businessman, part of the same country club milieu as the Mulvaneys.
For the next 15 years, the Mulvaneys disintegrate. Oates traces the reactions of each family member to the revelation of Marianne’s assault, provoking both detestation and tenderness in the reader toward the characters. Due to a faulty memory of the night and a personality too pliant and deferential to the good of others, Marianne channels the spirit of Christ and refuses to “bear false witness” against her rapist. At this point in the story, Marianne’s behavior throws into relief the latent Christian themes Oates has been weaving into the text since the start of the novel. Judgment, guilt, fall-then-redemption: These only grow in potency as the plot continues.
Mr. Mulvaney cannot understand why Marianne would not seek retribution for this scarring event. He becomes enraged one night and goes to the home of the upperclassman and attempts to attack him. Though the charges for his arrest are dropped, he begins a swift descent into resentment not only toward the situation, but toward his daughter as well. The town believes Marianne lied about the event. Their jealousy of the family’s success comes to the surface. The family business suffers, and as a result, Mr. Mulvaney turns to alcohol to assuage his sense of shame that he cannot “fix” his daughter or the situation. He sends Marianne to live with a distant relative and cuts off all contact, effecting for Marianne a life of wandering from place to place, waiting for her father’s forgiveness.
The rest of the family, meanwhile, fractures geographically and emotionally. The eldest son, Michael Jr., after arguing with his father, leaves the family business and heads for the marines. Patrick leaves for college, but cannot shake the unresolved rage toward the event, and becomes tempted to commit deep acts of violence as the novel progresses. The farm fails; Corinne and Michael sell it; they divorce. Eventually, the novel comes to a close on a bittersweet ending, but much pain lies between 1976 and its closure.
Still, the novel could have been perhaps 100 pages shorter and not been the worse for it. What is a mostly moving story gets diverted by some passages that dull the punch of the novel as a whole. Apart from the need to condense, some unimaginative phrases sprout here and there (“Abelove irradiated a powerful masculine heat”).
Nevertheless, Oates as a stylist stands strong in her inclusion of details about the family and the town that only a writer with a masterful imagination could produce. Many sentences shine brilliantly in an already captivating story: “Dissolving then like a TV screen switched to an empty channel, so there opened before her again that perfect void.” Oates also deftly depicts Marianne’s Christian forgiveness and the male members’ desire to “exact justice” to show us what they are: fine sentiments which can render their bearers ugly in ugly circumstances.
A reader may feel ambivalence verging on impatience with the handling of the character of Mr. Mulvaney. Why was he so disgusted with his daughter and the situation? Why didn’t Mrs. Mulvaney stand up for her daughter? Early on in the novel, we learn that Mr. Mulvaney is damaged goods; he was rejected by his family at one point in his early adulthood. In consideration of this fact, we understand that his issues with his old family, thought to have been resolved, have leached into his new one. We may be able to sympathize with him often enough, but sometimes this sympathy gets lost amidst Oates’ verbiage and the harshness of his treatment of Marianne.
Nevertheless, the reader is privileged to a portrait of high happiness and high rage coursing through the veins of the Mulvaneys, the blood of a story hot enough to melt marble. Reminiscent of other family dramas stretching back as far as “The Oresteia,” Oates builds upon the genre with her uncanny skill for spooky realism. In contrast to the characters in more compact family narratives such as Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” Oates gives the members of the Mulvaney family more room to manifest the change from their noisy, rambunctious selves in the beginning of the story to the haunted and searching figures they become. Ultimately, however, the Mulvaneys, formerly messy in their comings and goings and love for one another, find a more intimate connection with each other as a result of their pain. Whether you feel as successful as the family before their fall or as broken as they are after it, “We Were the Mulvaneys” grants a glimpse in how to handle the extremes of fortune that may rain down on us in life.
Contact Scott Stevens at ‘scotts7’ at stanford.edu.