By Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco.
428 pages. $26.95
By Nona Nelson
How much does the past control our future? Can sheer force of will overcome adversity, and can a new identity be forged despite haunting memories?
Joyce Carol Oates takes on these themes in her latest novel, “Mudwoman,” a grim tale of a woman who, in the fall of 2002, ascends to the top level of her profession only to find her psyche shattered by self-doubt and repressed childhood trauma.
Meredith Ruth Neukirchen, called M.R. through most of the book, is the first woman to become president of an Ivy League university. (Although never specifically named, “the University” in New Jersey is clearly Oates’ own employer, Princeton.)
Raised by Quakers and an avowed pacifist, M.R. is deeply troubled by the war in Afghanistan and the impending invasion of Iraq. Despite being urged by advisers to remain neutral and thus not offend more conservative trustees and donors, she intends to proclaim her political views about war, the Bush administration and the Patriot Act at a biting speech at an academic conference hosted at Cornell University.
But something happens in the hours leading up to her keynote address, and M.R. finds herself driving in a fugue state to upstate New York — to mudflats that seem to suck her in physically and psychologically.
Told in alternating chapters, we learn the story of Mudgirl, a sexually abused child whose own mother attempted to murder her by suffocating her in those mudflats, and Mudwoman, the career academic whose grip on reality becomes increasingly strained as she navigates her way through the all-consuming job of running a prestigious university.
From the day she was rescued from the fate her deranged mother planned for her, M.R. has never been honest about who she really is. Always striving to please and driven by an intense work ethic, she overachieves at almost every endeavor. Success in her personal relationships, however, is always elusive for the abandoned girl.
She understandably fails to bond with her dysfunctional and emotionally abusive foster family, but she also cannot fit into the mold her sweet-but-smothering adoptive parents cast for her as the replacement of a daughter they lost years earlier.
As a woman, she finds attempts at intimacy fare only slightly better. Convinced she is unattractive and undesirable, she has only limited interactions with men. She does, however, maintain a near 20-year affair with an older, married Harvard astronomy professor who is never emotionally available to her.
As she assumes her duties as university president, M.R. finds living alone in the university president’s house to be cold and lonely. She perceives insubordination, insult and even threats of violence from staff, faculty and students. Fellow drivers on the road are terrifying to her. She is in perpetual peril, and the reader is left to wonder which, if any, of the brutal accidents and assaults, described in grisly detail by the author, are real or merely imagined by the protagonist.
The story is consuming and disturbing. The writing is both harsh and lyrical. Oates’ odd use of punctuation is intended to lend inflection to the narrative, but it can also be somewhat annoying.
Subplots about a mentally ill, ultraconservative student at M.R.’s very liberal college and her refusal of a sizable corporate donation on moral grounds languish through the book and seem distracting.
The compelling story here is about the woman who doesn’t really know herself. She is frightened, emotionally and mentally adrift in a world where she both diligently tries to meet all her obligations and simultaneously rails against everything that is expected of her.
The time setting of the novel is clearly no coincidence. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did more than claim thousands of innocent lives. The cold-blooded acts of violence that day begat a wave of paranoia that, some would argue, changed our collective consciousness and threatened our identity as a nation.
In this analogy of post-9/11 America, Oates paints a vivid portrait of fear that tests the limits of strength and resilience.