Mudwoman: A Novel

  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • HarperCollins
  • 430 pp.

Joyce Carol Oates dissects the layers of a troubled woman’s self, revealing both her tender heart and the raw, sometimes ugly truth of her being.

It’s been asked before, but bears asking again: How does she do it? How has Joyce Carol Oates managed to produce such masterful novels at such a clip — roughly a book each year — since 1967? This latest novel follows a stunning memoir, A Widow’s Story, which chronicled the loss of her husband Raymond Smith, after a 46-year marriage. Yet not a year later she has produced this book, Mudwoman, taking us back to the disturbing exploration of selfhood.

Mudwoman begins by the banks of the Black Snake River where a young child is shaved bald by her cultish mother and thrown away to drown in the muck. Oates builds tension like the master craftsman we know her to be, by manipulating chronology and detail, building on the reader’s confusion between the living child and a doll tossed aside at the same time. The second chapter takes up the narrative several decades later, and introduces MR Neukirchen.

At 41, MR has become the first woman president of an Ivy League university. Before a speaking engagement in Ithaca, New York she takes a reckless drive and detours beyond Carthage and cell phone reception into a back road where her car becomes stuck in the mud. She manages to extricate herself and walk up the road to safety. Then at a local watering hole, she meets a fox-faced man in overalls who asks if she is a Kraeck. She looks like one of the Kraecks, he says.

Thus begins a deep exploration of female selfhood. Who is MR Neukirchen in the end, if not really herself? Answer: She is the dutiful daughter, the spurned lover, the fulfiller of dreams as well as the role model. She is the waking and sleeping dreamer of selfhood and also the difference between those two. She is sometimes repulsive to herself and others, at other times desired by men. She is also alone, and, Oates writes, “Aloneness is the great fecundity of the mind if it is not the destruction of the mind.”

What I most admire about Joyce Carol Oates is a craftsmanship that paradoxically also holds me at arm’s length. She has the ability to write into the heart of her characters without softening or distracting readers from the raw truth about them. You won’t find anything resembling compassion here. To dub a complex character “Mudgirl” or “Mudwoman” requires cruelty and guts. Even when describing emotional and physical wounds, Oates eschews sentimentality. A cut on the forehead is “a prim little vertical wound.” A fall down stairs is described with glee in painful, humiliating and humorous detail.

Ultimately this novel reads like a cross section of selfhood, or, more explicitly, of MR’s female selfhood. As university president she is “something of a thoroughbred workhorse.” But as a woman, she also craves approval by the trustees and wants to be liked by her students. This desire leads to rash behavior, as when she drives to a hospital and visits a student who claims to have been attacked on campus, in the hopes of averting scandal for the university. She desperately wants him to know that she is on his side.

Later, when she meets the same disturbed student in the privacy of her office, MR learns that although he can certainly trust her, she cannot trust him.

And here we must question the truth. What happens to truth in the Internet age? In the age of sound bytes and recorded conversations, MR reflects that “it didn’t matter what had truly happened but what might be believed to have happened by a sizable number of people.”

As college administrator, she must refrain from speaking freely and spontaneously, and from expressing opinions. When she lies she lies “so very convincingly, as only a seasoned and trusted administrator might lie.” When she is late for a meeting, “MR always apologized when it seemed necessary. But she would not apologize profusely, like one who had good reason to apologize.”

Oates explores with stark dexterity the role MR plays as (secret) lover to a married man. It is tacitly agreed that she must love enough for them both, remaining on hold and hidden in the background. She persists in loving this damaged man because, in Oates’ words, “she thought there could be nothing more tender between a man and a woman than this wish to console.” Yet only when the lover leaves her she can be fully herself. Here we explore even more layers of selfhood, including the most primitive layers, which MR always guards against. There is always an earlier or different selfhood that rises up to sabotage her.

Chapters alternate between the childhood experience of “Merry” and the adult life of MR. Oates explores MR’s relationship with adoptive parents, as a young child and into adulthood. At one point her father tells her that, “If you travel back to the time before you were born, you would discover a world in which you did not exist, but if you travel back to the time after you’d been born, you would discover a world in which a younger twin self of your own existed.”

MR tries to reconcile the childhood selfhood “tossed out like trash — like living garbage,” with the self that puts on a face for her public — the Mudwoman who covers bruises and damage with foundation makeup.

As always, Joyce Carol Oates masterfully evokes a sense of menace, if not malevolence, while drawing her readers deep into the psychology of her characters. We are asked to entertain the self who dreams, the self who lives her dreams and the self who attempts to overcome nightmares. The classical paradox surrounding what makes up the self cuts way beyond the layers of mud until we get to bedrock.

Oates has her readers asking with MR if the human predicament is ultimately the effort to remain human. Mudwoman is a dark, intelligent and deeply compelling novel, Joyce Carol Oates at her best, which will hold you in its thrall until the end.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, who teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College, has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker and has published stories, under Amanda Holmes, in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons,” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

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