J.C. Oates’ ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ And Some Thoughts on Breakfast

by Jess

I just finished reading Joyce Carol Oates’ 26th (26th!) novel We Were the Mulvaneys, a find from the annual library book sale that had languished unread on my bookshelf for months. It was my first foray into her novels, though I’ve read a great number of her short stories.

I love David Gates’ NYT review of the book and his candor in describing Oates, as no other author can be described: “Once in a while, Ms. Oates will write something so discouraging it puts you off her for a novel or two.” Because what other writer is so prolific that you can skip “a novel or two” and then get back to reading her work? Gates also does a good job of briefly summarizing some of the allegorical imagery in the book, for example, the novel’s Eden, which is the Mulvaney family home, High Point Farm. So you know right from the beginning that someone (though it turns out to be everyone) is going to fall, and far. As the poet so famously put it: “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden.”

I have to confess, though, that my reading experience was much more similar to this reviewer’s: “We Were the Mulvaneys, however evident of Oates’s talent as a novelist, is a tedious, overdescriptive work that requires a lot of patience and perseverance to get through.” I had a lot of trouble finishing the book (I took breaks from it to read Dickens, if that tells you anything), and I very rarely found myself lost in the story. Instead, oddly, I kept imagining Oates as she was writing. Maybe the voice was too self-consciously crafted, or maybe it was something else, but the characters never came alive for me. They were more like marionettes hung from strings on Oates’ fingers, and all the while I was too aware of Oates looming godlike over the narrative. Part of this might have been because of Oates’ choice to make the youngest Mulvaney brother the narrator, and since he wasn’t present for much of the action in the novel, he tries to craft close third-person POVs of his siblings and parents in order to tell the story, and the whole thing is awkward. I thought it was a poor choice on Oates’ part.

I also found the ending formally unsatisfying and abrupt after spending so much time with the lengthy story. To say nothing of the lack of resolution in the plot; there’s no justice for the characters, no closure for the trauma they’ve undergone, no psychological catharsis, there’s just… nothing.  The payoff never comes. As the reviewer says: “There is never any real attempt to explain the stunningly cruel behavior of Marianne’s parents; instead Oates writes: ‘In families, things just happen.’ It’s almost as though the author lost interest and decided to wrap up a complex and riveting story with a few quick ‘feel good’ chapters at the end and a ridiculous family reunion in which everything turns out hunky-dory.”

I remember a number of times during writing workshop at Queens when the workshop consensus was that a piece of fiction was not “believable” enough. To which the writer would protest, “But that’s the way it really happened!” It posed a difficult problem for the writer trying to fictionalize a real-life event, but I guess sometimes life really is stranger than fiction, and if you want your readers to be rewarded for their investment in your work, you have to give them a conclusion that holds up under the weight of what has come before it. In We Were the Mulvaneys, we were dealing with rape, alcoholism, domestic violence, abduction and nearly murder. In real life, sure, maybe a family could come through that without ever really dealing with their issues, by sheer force of will, denial, and coping mechanisms. Maybe they would never talk about it, never get counseling. Maybe they just go on pretending nothing happened. But at the end of the novel, there are no forced smiles. There’s no sign that any of the scene is meant to be taken ironically or to hint at the deep emotional scars borne by all the Mulvaneys. We are really and truly supposed to buy that everything just magically worked itself out, ta-da! Nah. I’m not buying it.

On a more satisfied note, I recently very much enjoyed Nick Ripatrazone’s Breakfast: A Love Story over at The Millions. I’ve read it several times now, perhaps in part because I love breakfast so much. But I discovered the work of Christian Wiman in Ripatrazone’s little meal-time meditation, which sent me on a lovely journey through Wiman’s poetry. His essay “Mortify Our Wolves,” on the struggle with faith in the face of pain and death, is a dense but very rewarding read. And from an essay that Wiman wrote on the passing of his friend, the poet Craig Arnold, I then went on to discover Arnold’s poetry (oh, the joys of the unending Internet!), a journey which came full circle back to breakfast upon my reading of Arnold’s Meditation on a Grapefruit. Happy breakfasting.

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