Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

"It's the way families are, sometimes. A thing goes wrong and one knows how to fix it and years pass and--no one knows how to fix it." - Judd Mulvaney

I had bought this book years ago as an attempt to educate myself on Joyce Carol Oates. It sat untouched in my bookcase until recently, when I read an article in the New Yorker about something quite horrific that referenced this novel as a great fictional parallel. No better nudge to read the book finally than this!

And ugh. It is very good, but in the same way as the movies Dancer in the Dark and Lilya 4-Ever are very good. I don't think I can read it again, because it is very heartbreaking and unfair. Hmm. Maybe that is one reason for not having been enthusiastic about this book until now, because the jacket described it as "heartbreaking," which just makes me think of some silly over-the-top romantic sob story. But now I can't find a better word for it.

Trying not to spoil too much, here is the gist of the story in one paragraph: the Mulvaneys live in a small town on a farm, and are an epitome of a wonderful family--the parents banter with each other, everyone has cutesy nicknames, there are pets under foot wherever you turn, and all the four kids are strikingly different individuals. Everyone is so cute and gutsy! Then, a tragedy hits the family. And suddenly you are reading about good people who make really crappy choices for who knows what reasons, because certainly you cannot see the logic in their actions although on some level you have sympathy for them. And this goes on for decades. It's... heartbreaking.

Even in the end, where the story wraps up in a sort of a happy resolution, it is all tainted with the knowledge that these people wasted so many years being angry at each other, and it's time that can never be brought back. What's worse, it seems as if everyone can breathe freely only after one toxic force is removed from their lives--and he is not even the real bad guy in the story! (Or is he? I suppose he does become one.)

It's a tough read, for sure, but it has so much to offer beyond just the main story. In the beginning, Oates goes into ridiculous, almost boring lengths in describing the details of how each character looks and what their possessions look like (the pages of describing antiques that the mother collects, geez...) as if those were the only things that the characters and the author had actual control over. As the years progress, the details disappear not only from the style of storytelling, but from the lives of these people. Once the tragedy hits the family, all this materialism that they believe makes them who they are is stripped away, and all they have left is their actions that now define them more than their reputations based on school or work performance.

I think I need another Oates to read. Based on this, I'm not going to find a happy-go-lucky story in her repertoire to cleanse my palate with, am I?

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