Jason's Reviews > We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
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May 14, 10

Read from May 07 to 12, 2010

Confession. I have a peculiar interest in stories that most people consider depressing. I like to observe how people fail. I enjoy watching an author destroy families. Poor decisions, personal flaws, bad luck, awful timing--I don't care what causes it, just as long as the characters unravel, sucking faster clockwise down the toilet. Let me be clear: in real life I don't wish bad things to happen. But, there's a lot of human suffering in the world, and I find that subject more interesting than fiction with an inspirational tone or an uplifting message. I must have morbid chromosomal base pairs that make me intrigued with hidden, lurid details about a character's devolution to the bottom.

I've experienced a rather peaceful, profitable, humble, healthy, nuclear life. My stock has had a slow but interminable rise through 40 years, with the normal distressing whipsaws that are naturally smoothed over time. I've not had a sustained depression or streak of bad luck that was ever intractable. I've never been addicted, obsessed, exploited, abused, or criminal. I've never had a malignancy. Perhaps it's from this 'normal' life I like to experience vicariously the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.' I don't read these depressing novels with any air of conceit or swagger. I just want to know how life could otherwise be.

And yet, that doesn't explain my peculiar interest. There's something more. There's something more engaging about a tragic story than a hopeful one; something that demands attention. Something that makes you stare more intensely at a street riot than a street party; an old man crying than an old man laughing; scandal than good news; self-destruction than self-improvement. This also explains my attraction to the Realists and Naturalists, writers like Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, Frank Norris, William Dean Howells, and the absolute genius of Emile Zola. These authors grind their characters into chaff and seed. Zola abuses, lacerates, addicts, crushes, masticates, and annihilates his characters; he brings hellfire. Joyce Carol Oates gets in the vicinity of that fire.

We Were the Mulvaneys is a book that moves over the unwinding and dissolution of a family like a discriminating hand over braille. Joyce Carol Oates introduces a 6 member family at their peak. Maybe even she introduces them past their zenith and onto the shallow downwind slope of the bell curve. Perhaps the Mulvaneys have never been better than 10-15 pages before the start of the book. That halcyon moment, unwritten, scintillating, which existed just before you started reading. The family tears itself apart over the next 430 pages. Oates orchestrates this family tragedy from a single, brutal incident. She captures the realism of how this incident reverberates to the rest of the family. There's a natural rhythm and a wholly believable anastomosis of decisions that are set forth, irrevocably patterned before each family member. They all make the worst decisions, the most defeating choices.

If you don't like chapter after chapter of hate, fear, guilt, anger, impotence, rot, and self-immolation, then you will score this book lower than 3 stars. If you're like me, and want to snoop on these human conditions, you'll have to score at least 3--if not more--stars. I added a fourth star because, although I found no absolutely unforgettable lines to quote, Mrs. Joyce writes well and injects several brilliant metaphors, and the book, overall, steadily engages the reader. The characters, and their actions, are believable. However, like an afterclap, she tarnishes for me the whole book with an unnecessary 21 page epilogue that, down to the last sentence, repudiates the theme of self-destruction she's worked to achieve in 430 pages. Suddenly and out of all character to the rest of the book, the remaining family members become a happy, loving family with a healthy, productive future. It's as if Oates didn't have the gonads to leave her characters crushed and destitute. Instead, she rushed a happy ending that redeems the human condition.

Otherwise she has a tendency to repeat verbs three times in a row, ostensibly to achieve a certain story-telling effect, but it becomes overworked by the fifteenth time she uses it. Good character development (if the Mulvaneys leave you enraged with what appears spineless and idiotic behavior, then Oates has done her job--she's faithfully represented the spineless and idiotic behavior in your communities all around you--open you eyes). This is not a tour de force or an epic; that would require 250 more pages and a little better writing. I recommend this Oprah (...meh) Book Club selection.

New words: cloche, jodhpurs, chignon

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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I didn't like this as much as you did -- Oates' style often gets on my nerves -- but very nice review.


Jason BP, Over the last couple years, not only have my bones and muscles been feeling my age, but my interests in reading have registered an unexpected change. Years ago I would have rated this 2 stars, like you. But now I study the writing, and read in larger chunks. Although Oates isn't the best writer, I think she knows herself, her style, and her audience. This gives her great confidence as a writer and a strong presence in her words. Her style is her style, and she 'aint' gonna change it for anybody. I felt it warranted her the 4th star. The 3rd star was merely for the subject matter itself, re: my review.


message 3: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez In which case, you must love Lars Von Trier.


Jason I heard about Lars Von Trier from you. After checking Wikipedia, I may have watched Zentropa, but that's it. Some of his movies seem interesting; thanks for the introduction.

Don't let the review pigeon-hole me. I do like to come up for air once in awhile from the deep, dark misanthopy and depression. Lars von Trier may be a bit too bizarre and exotic for me. I like to visit that world occassionally, not live there.

But if you're a huge fan of this genre, I read a fantastic book last year, very rare, I had to 'bookmouch.com' it.
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...


message 5: by Trish (new)

Trish I listened to this a couple of years ago while working in a garden by a lake, and I will never forget it. I worked long and hard while I listened, and didn't regret an instant of it. I thought it inspired and could recognize her great relational experience--surely this is a woman who's never actually experienced events such as these. That she spends her days breathing life into families such as the Mulvaneys is awe-inspiring. I rarely find myself able to pick up Oates and actually read anything. I was pleased to be able to spend a day at long last with such a prolific author.


message 6: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Dancer in the Dark is an excellent, albeit depressing one, and Dogville is just about his only vindicating film, but it makes you feel sick with yourself for feeling vindicated. Both are worth a viewing, though many of his movies are WAY too much, too dark, too everything awful about everything. A bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift.


Jason Trish, I've never listened to a book on tape, but I've got a 14 hr round trip to make in early June. Are books on tape verbatim or does an editor make it more palatable by whittling out significant portions?

Kristi, Dogville was actually the one that seemed most interesting. And I do have to say our thumbnails look pretty damn good back to back.


message 8: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez They're dueling, is all.


message 9: by Trish (new)

Trish Jason, some of the books are unabridged, some abridged, depending on what you like. 14 hours, huh? sounds like a marathon. Do you have a usb jack in the car so that you could plug in a MP3 player or are you thinking to use CDs? My car is so old it only has a tape player, but I use a tape adapter to portable CD player. Anyway, what would I recommend? Hmmm. The Help won audio awards for last year and was very good on Cd because of the southern accents and distinct voices, but maybe some might consider it "a women's book." One of my favorites for last year was City of Thieves. My favorite so far this year was Beatrice and Virgil.


message 10: by Ned (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ned Mozier I appreciate your perspective, not dissimilar here and what interests me in darkness. Remember the first scene in Apocalypse Now, he's despondent because he feels weakened by comfort.


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