There is a landscape of murk and junk, dark water and black mud, trash and detritus and debris, desolate woods, rickety bridges over ugly rivers, rust and barbed wire, that lurks under a lot of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing. It’s a landscape where human beings can barely survive and that they have to struggle out of, but it’s always there, waiting to suck you down and back. It’s a good location for a creepy Gothic writer like Oates, who loves dank basements, the slimy grasp of the unconscious, horrors in the night. Fear and dread are at home there, perfect for a writer who specializes in anxiety. It’s a useful embodiment of that condition of primitive, passive inertia and helplessness that her characters—especially her women characters—often have to resist. And it’s a scene of dreadful formlessness, which her writing so often unnervingly—even dreadfully—enacts.
There it is dragging down the young woman victim of the Chappaquiddick-style accident in Black Water (1992). There it is haunting the imagination of the backwoods evangelist in Son of the Morning (1978), who sees the woman who tempts him as “struggling in mud, struggling to rise,” wound round by an enormous black snake. (“What is man? A ball of snakes,” is one of Mudwoman’s epigraphs, from Nietzsche.) There it is in Marya: A Life (1986), a precursor of the new novel Mudwoman from twenty-five years ago, in which the woman struggles out, through her brains and her willpower, from the badlands of dirt and gravel, of “desolates stretches…with strangers’ debris dumped by night, an old sofa overturned in a ditch, a junked refrigerator with its door swung open,” but spends her life fearing that “the waters will suck you down and close over your head.”
There it is in Angel of Light (1981), in which the daughter of the assassinated federal agent has to revisit, and walk into, the Virginian mud swamp where he drowned (“Water in which sewage has been dumped. Water in which organic life is decaying”), and has to taste the “soft rich black mud” and smell “the brackish swamp odor.” There it is at the sinister start of The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007), with the woman being tracked along the lonely towpath by the Erie Canal, “the snaky-glittery dark water like certain thoughts you try to push away,” the “fetid marsh” alongside. And there it is, just fleetingly, in her memoir, A Widow’s Story (2011), in which the person who has successfully created someone called Joyce Carol Oates “out of the sticks, mud, fields and waterways of my upstate New York girlhood” is now a panic-stricken, grief-stricken, deranged observer of that “impersonation.”
Mudwoman starts in this landscape, and must come back to it. Like a low tune that’s been haunting her for years, it now blares out in all its full gruesome melodramatic power as the primal scene of the novel:
Here were the remains of an abandoned mill, an unpaved road and rotted debris amid tall snakelike marsh grasses that shivered and whispered in the wind. Exposed roots of trees and collapsed and rotting tree trunks bearing the whorled and affrighted faces of the damned…. No smells more pungent than the sharp muck-smell of the mudflats where the brackish river water seeps and is trapped and stagnant with algae…. Vast unfathomable acres of mudflats amid cattails, jimsonweed and scattered litter of old tires, boots, torn clothing, broken umbrellas and rotted newspapers, abandoned stoves, refrigerators with doors flung open like empty arms.
To this place comes a God-haunted, godforsaken, demented mother, absconded from a detention center with her two small girls, whom she’s abused all their lives, intending to kill them both rather than let the state have them. One she drowns in the mud, the other she shuts in a junked refrigerator. One survives: she is “Mudgirl,” and she will, by a combination of chance, willpower, intelligence, and ambition, become a person of status and authority, an intellectual, a public figure, and a highly successful professional academic administrator who nevertheless is still Mudwoman, always liable to be sucked back into the swamp.
The mud swamp is a scene from a nightmare or a fairy tale, and the novel is constructed like an old Native American folk tale, with chapter headings like “Mudwoman Confronts an Enemy,” a quest motif, and mythic childhood tales of animal power (“Mudgirl Saved By the King of the Crows”). But it is also a very specific location in the poor rural areas of upstate New York. Oates likes to have a setting that can be located on an American map but is also the stuff of myth or dream. She often returns, imaginatively compelled, to the scene of her own childhood in rural Millersport and Lockport, on the Erie Canal, near the Canadian border. (It figures as Eden County, for instance, in The Gravedigger’s Daughter.)
Mudwoman’s location is further north, east of Lake Ontario, in the foothills of the southern Adirondacks, whose mountains loom over the novel. A real freeway, I-81, can take you there, through real New York counties (Tompkins, Cortland, Madison, Herkimer), and then into Oates-land, not exactly on any map: Beechum County, Black Snake River, Star Lake, the small town of Carthage, named for Greek tragedy and Greek epic like other real towns—Troy, Ithaca—in that state. (At one point in A Widow’s Story, Oates says that her lifeline is the novel she is writing “about loss, grief, and mourning, in a mythical upstate New York river-city called Sparta.”) The novel starts and ends with “Mudwoman” compulsively driving to and from the solid, public settings of her adult life—university campuses, conference halls, the president’s house—and the forlorn scene of her childhood: rickety bridges over dark water, tin shacks, trailer homes, car wrecks, mountain roads. She is doomed to return to that scene and must try to make her peace with it.
Jedina Kraek is the three-year-old child who is chucked into the mud by her savage mother and left to die. She is rescued by a local trapper, a retarded boy out of Flannery O’Connor who hears the animals speaking to him and seems to have been sent by the King of the Crows. She camouflages herself in her dead sister’s name, Jewell. She is taken in by the Skedds, rough local foster parents in a ramshackle house full of lost, angry children. (This being a Joyce Carol Oates novel, the whole houseful later goes up in flames.) Jewell Kraek is adopted by a decent, public-spirited Quaker couple (pacifist, literary, philosophical, perhaps a little overbearing) in nearby Carthage, and given a new birthdate and a new name, Meredith Ruth Neukirchen, or Merry. She grows up not at all merry, but quiet, observant, bright, eager to please, anxious, serious, and hardworking. She is a model prize-winning schoolgirl, athletic and scholarly.
Ambition—and the discovery that she was a replacement child for her adoptive parents—drives her away from Carthage to Harvard. She becomes a high-achieving young philosopher, an intellectual who is also eagerly and naively willing “to be a good citizen,” and, by rapid stages, the first woman president of an (unnamed) Ivy League university. In this role she once again renames herself, as “M.R.,” initials that deliberately avoid femininity or grandiosity. The present time of the novel runs from October 2002 to August 2003—the period of America’s war with Iraq—and flashes back to her childhood, from 1965 to 1978. In the present time, M.R.’s public persona cracks apart into breakdown, as past time, more and more insistently, infiltrates her adult life like creeping mudwater.
M.R. Neukirchen is handsome, tall, lean, fit, a “brave Amazon girl-warrior” with “falcon’s eyes, in a girl’s face.” She believes, like her adoptive Quaker parents, in a life of service, in being always “readied” for action. She is an idealist, a liberal, and a feminist. And she tries to sustain those ideals in her work at a time of the triumph of neoconservatism in American politics. She is passionately opposed to the Iraq war, though she must conceal her political views in public: “Quickly she’d learned that a public position puts one in hostage: the first freedom you surrender is the freedom to speak impulsively, from the heart.” But she works to introduce a more radical, democratic agenda into her traditionalist university—open access, students’ rights, a democratic ethos. These ideals are sardonically presented (mainly through the use of scare quotes, an Oatesian tic, around terms like “service”), as if a life of selflessness and idealism is really always a form of vanity. The university old guard circles around her, waiting for her to fail.
Her nemesis is a boy called Stirk (harsh names in the novel—Skedd, Kraek, Stirk—are like knives pointing at her), a brilliant, gay, right-wing student, pro-war and anti-abortion, exhibitionist and troubled, who fakes an attack on himself, stages a showdown with M.R. in her office, and botches a suicide attempt that leaves him in a coma. M.R.’s encounter with Stirk, and her battles with conservative colleagues, fall into a fictional tradition of the isolated campus figure up against bigotry and scandal (J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain). The dramatic conflict with Stirk is the public trigger for M.R.’s breakdown; the madness of the US “readying” itself for war is the parallel for her private madness.
But the novel’s parallel between public, political madness and private breakdown seems artificial and heavy-handed. Violence and violation—always Oates’s favorite subjects—are more powerfully acted out in Mudwoman’s secret, internal drama. There is a gloomy and pessimistic argument running through the novel that for a woman such as M.R. to be a successful public figure, she must stifle or sublimate her femaleness, her sexuality, which will come back to haunt her. She is essentially alone, and aloneness (a big subject for this writer) is bad for you: “It is an error to live alone…. For the heart hardens, like volcanic ore.” “If you are always alone, you will be thinking non-stop—your brain will never click off.”
Her love interest is an absentee cosmologist/astronomer, married and much older, who is always away exploring “extragalactic” or “interstellar” space. This absurdly symbolic figure is not a convincing character (no one is, except for M.R. and her series of parents). He is not there to convince, however, but to show us that M.R. does not want “femaleness” to interfere with her professional life. Her repressed sexuality returns in horrifying nightmare visions of violation, murder, and dismemberment—climaxing in a particularly lurid Gothic-horror fantasy sequence that could fit right into Nightmare on Elm Street or The Amityville Horror, in which M.R. is chopping up the body of her most thuggish neocon adversary in the bloody slaughterhouse basement of the president’s residence, Charters House.
There is a very high level of dread and anxiety in this novel, and in that sense it’s like a replay of A Widow’s Story in a different guise. Oates’s transfixing account of the sudden death of her husband was read as an autobiography of grief and bereavement, but it is quite as much an account of panic and vertiginous derangement. The sentences flail around under the pressure: