The Terrors of the Woman President


by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 428 pp., $26.99
Dominique Nabokov
Joyce Carol Oates, Princeton, New Jersey, 1981

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.