There is a terror in aloneness. Beyond even loneliness.
And now, this is my life. This is what my life will be. This aloneness, this anxiety, this dread of the next hour and of the upcoming night and of the morning to follow, this dread of a vast avalanche of trash, useless unwanted trash spilling over me, filling my mouth, suffocating, smothering trash…this will be the rest of my life, without my husband….
A buzz of voices, a roaring in my ears—though I seem to be smiling and in fact I am very happy to be here—whatever “Joyce Carol Oates” is, or was—I am very happy to be her—if this is the individual to whom such attention has accrued for this warm welcoming fleeting hour at least.
I am trying to recall what it was like—this couldn’t have been long ago, a month and a day—to feel that I was alive; to feel that I was an actual person, and not this simulacrum of a person; to feel that, if I don’t retreat soon to my hotel room, I will disintegrate into bits and pieces clattering across the floor.
Like M.R., whose novel she was writing alongside A Widow’s Story, “Joyce Carol Oates” is continuing to mimic the self she has constructed, the self she is publicly recognized as being. But in Mudwoman she shows the impersonation failing, as it did in her 1980s novels of successful women academics, Marya: A Life and Solstice, in which the women’s public lives fall apart in vertigo and panic. As a philosopher, M.R. writes about selfhood and its limits: “There’s no ‘I’ in consciousness—only just consciousness. And so—no ‘I’ can possess a ‘soul.’” It’s an argument that goes right back to Oates’s early novels, Do With Me What You Will (1973) or Childwold (1976), where the single dominant “I” consciousness must merge into otherness, into things, into the lives of others.
But what happens when the “I” that a woman has constructed breaks down? Mudwoman is very good at the performance of the public life of the woman president, the formal dinners night after night “where M.R. had to impersonate herself for hours—hours!,” the relentless schedule of luncheons and committees and receptions, the need, after a long day in public of smiling so that her face aches, to shut off her smile “like a high-wattage lightbulb,” the sense she has of always being observed.
The unraveling of this performance is grippingly horrible. As in a waking nightmare or a dream that is dreaming her and over which she has no control, M.R. starts to be late, dreadfully late, for her own dinners and meetings, to fall and hurt herself and appear with bloodshot eyes and lacerated face and disheveled hair and patchy makeup, to forget and make mistakes, to say the wrong thing in committees with words like ”little poison toads” coming out of her mouth, to be found on the lavatory, found in her bed, found on the floor. The “skilled imposture” of Mudwoman as M.R. Neukirchen is seen through; the fear of being “an imposter who has been publicly exposed” is fulfilled. And the prose, likewise, in its almost unbearable repetitiveness and awkwardness, as if written in a compulsive trance, produces in the reader the same kind of nausea and vertigo as the subject is suffering from:
Quickly she stood: what time was it? Where was she?
…in the library downstairs at Charters House. Barefoot and but partially dressed and shivering convulsively like an inmate deranged and terrified in some corner of some mental asylum of long-ago in the aftermath of a dream so visceral it would seem to have had no visual or intellectual or even emotional content whatsoever but to have been the equivalent of having been trapped inside a clanging bell or dragged behind a speeding vehicle along a graveled roadway and yet she would not succumb, she would not give in to whatever this was, whatever vision, or whatever failure of vision, for she was strong and determined and she was M.R. Neukirchen—she remembered the name, in triumph—and it was a good strong respected name—it was her name—she would bear it through this day as through the other days for as long as she was capable….
To carry on for as long as she is capable, M.R. has to face the past and make her way back to the primal scene. She must refind her adoptive father, her savage wreck of a mother, all the sites of her terrible childhood. As in a dream or a fairy tale (but not as in a convincing realist novel), everyone from her past turns up again, with a message or a gift. A last act of violent struggle suggests that, just possibly, M.R. will endure and prevail, and go back after her enforced period of sick leave to being a successful woman president. But it’s the dread, the panic, and the anxiety that the exhausted, bludgeoned reader will remember from Mudwoman, not the survival and recovery.