Joyce Carol Oates: We Were the Mulvaneys, or How I Suffered This Book So You Don’t Have to

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

This was probably one of the worst books I’ve read. I picked up this book on a thrift store shelf for 2 bucks and I’d like my two bucks back. In fact I never finished the book because I’ve just got only so much time in my life and I don’t need to waste it reading overly sensitive, moralistic, white bread drivel.

It was on the Oprah’s list! So what does this say about Oprah?

The book opens up on a scene set in Michigan in the seventies, a large white family whose papa works as a roofer and mama stays home to be the fulltime mom to a gaggle of kids. On a roofer’s wages in a small podunk town, somehow they manage to hold onto a farm with all the nostalgic accoutrements; horses, chickens and the big old victorian house. Welcome to the Waltons in print.

The characters are developed like cardboard cut-outs, with apparently no more thought to developing them into believable, full-fledged things representing humans than say, someone writing ad copy for a grocery store circular. Based on stereotypes that could choke a hard-boiled wingnut, one reads every page anticipating that possibly, we’ll get rewarded on the turn of the next, for our hard work plowing through the flat, boring constructions to find something real on the other side. But that never occurs. Mom is ever self-effacing, fragile and foolish, so is the only daughter, whose loss of innocence destroys the family.

Oates worries incessantly about the males in her story, attempting to show us how the moral soiling of a female is ruinous to the poor menfolk too; perhaps, it seems, even more important. The women take a backseat and unbelievably, in Oates’ world, this doesn’t bother them a bit. Instead they stand in the background and allow their menfolk to shine while they flitter in the light of the moon. Often I had to put the book down lest I scream for reading one more passage about the delicate paper thin white skin of the mother or the daughter; their skinny appearance showing self sacrifice. She even had repeated references to both women denying themselves food! Good God! Did anyone tell this woman we already have a ton of middle class white girls starving themselves to death to meet this foolish ideal of angelity? Take this for instance, “her hair cut cruelly short, face waxy-pale and mouth slack, so without experession, in the daze of sleep, he hadn’t recognized her. She looked so young, so– childlike.”

So all you big girls, loud mouthed girls, dark colored girls, strong girls, look out because you are not getting any empathy from Ms. Oates, in fact in her world you don’t even exist, lest possibly you trample her flailing, delicate female fairies.

Then of course, if you’ve lived your life anywhere outside Cornell university, you might not be so bought into the idea that a roofing contractor in a small town could make enough money to join a local country club — or more accurately, that if he did, he would be able to make that class transference so easily. Only in the lala land of the conservative white middle class brain does such a mythology still achieve any serious consideration. I’m sure Oates sold well by stoking the fertile fantasies of the striving middle class with that theme.

Oh and the dialogue! The descriptors. I grew up in the seventies, I grew up in the Midwest. I’ll tell you right now that no teenager in their right mind that didn’t grow up in a closet talked like this, “I shan’t…” Shan’t? Of course whatever she shan’t do or say usually is followed with a long descriptor of her feminine duty to sacrifice without complaint, such as numerous scenes where either women jump up to serve immediately, always self deprecating and always fragile, with hollowed out, sunken eyes we’re told, (again) paper thin white skin and fluttering fingers through thin, frazzled hair apparently reflecting over-wrought fragile minds of these martyrs to the feminine cause.

The males, the father and the three brothers of course are the doers. They represent the rescuers, the strong ones, the ones given to flights of anger or self serving hedonistic pleasure; but they are men and the women not only tolerate such but in the world of the Mulvaneys, the women seem completely oblivious to what they are missing.

Couple all the Hallmark card sentimentality with its glitter coated one dimensionality for popular consumption, with horrendously long, drawn out and uninteresting descriptors. I don’t give a damn if a character wore “a silk polka-dot dress that fitted her loosely, marble-sized red dots on a white background; the bodice was a mass of buttons…” So what? The descriptors of what people wore were like reading a Sears catalog and what relevance this ever had on the plot, one can never know. Is it more relevant that the protagonist wore red pumps with a 5″ heel or blue open toed sandals with a 3″ heel? A nubby, chunky sweater or a tight cowl-neck green one? Smooth slacks with an elastic waist or rumpled jeans?

In addition, the moralizing. Mom sang hymns while she worked, daughter quoted the bible endlessly, one son quotes the bible as well and listens to classical music, finding the popular band Plaistica, nauseating and the hoaorish behavior of his college chums equally nauseating. And he fits in a university atmosphere and peerage? Really? Maybe I’m just sheltered in this, but I thought college kids demand as much or more conformity of eachother than even junior high schoolers.

But the moralizing, the religion, the assumption of the author that Christian values permeate through every decent family and thus are assumed. This is given strength by the college attending boy (because the women don’t have or acquire or value education and nor does the author apparently wish to give them chance to get one) who gets all tied up in a moral knot about questions of evolution when studying biology. This is taken seriously and the doubting professor is the one described as the cruel, clueless, rigid restriction against the free thinking pro-creationist.

I could go on, but I’ll quit here only with the thought that if I had known such low quality writing could make one a good living, I’d have gotten started on this track years ago. Oates apparently churns out the popular white bread for an audience to believe in weak women, strong men and a big man flying in the sky to protect them all and everything that is right pretty regularly. Hell, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it right? We can see Oates isn’t working for the Pulitzer but is paying the bills. I guess we’re not all out to save the world.

Now I admit, I didn’t finish the book. Like I said at the beginning of this screed, I just couldn’t. I’ve got better things to do. Sorry, its not my job to make an author’s creation justify my time, its the other way around; the author has an obligation to keep me wanting to read that book, to keep me enthralled enough to find out what’s going on next. But when it takes two pages for a character to answer a ringing phone, or trudging through insufferably simplistic and moralistic scenarios, enough is enough.

A person can only wade through a swamp so long before realizing, there’s really nothing to see on the other side to make the effort worth it. As a lover and collector of books, I must say that my conscience is clear about my plan to consign the volume I purchased to the recycling bin, in the hope that its pages will be reincarnated into something more useful to human kind, like say toilet paper.

4 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates: We Were the Mulvaneys, or How I Suffered This Book So You Don’t Have to

  1. Natalie Ellis says:

    Please don’t be so ignorant. You are obviously one of those readers who must be engaged by an action-packed, plot-driven story. You have completely failed to recognize the beautiful, gripping character development that lies at the heart of this novel. Too many readers like you expect stories that paint sensationalized, unrealistic scenarios and you close your mind to the stories that focus on the inner conflicts of the characters. Oates purposefully crafted each family member to be “card-board cutouts” at the beginning of the novel to show how the “American dream” of the 70’s is not as perfect as it may seem on the surface. Each family member, in their own unique way, could not maintain that facade of perfection, because of the “incident”. I suggest you reread this book and try to absorb the subtle craftsmanship it presents. If you are incapable of doing so, I beg you to stick to Twilight or the Hunger Games.

    • Natalie Ellis says:

      In addition, how dare you say something like “its pages will be reincarnated into something more useful to human kind, like say toilet paper.” This was the most immature, rude, and ignorant review I have ever read. If you don’t like a book, please keep you childish comments to yourself. There’s a reason this book has been awarded the New York Times Noteable Book of the Year and International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award. You obviously feel you are a better critic than some of the most distinguished scholars. Stop ruining the reputation of fine literature with your stupidity.

      • Natalie,

        Thanks for your comments.

        I found the book insulting and made clear the reasons. If you like to wade through poor writing to get some greater meaning, then please, by all means help yourself, the world of bad writing is your oyster.

        As for your comment about “beautiful, gripping character development” I don’t know if we were reading the same text. I’ve been on this earth long enough to know, like I said that people don’t talk the way she had them talking, don’t act like she had them acting and her stereotypical roles were more than I (or many people judging by the agreed comments on Amazon), could take.

        Her portrayals of women were insulting and degrading. If you like women being portrayed as weak and frail, then by all means, help yourself. Good luck with that, but the real world isn’t like that and Oates would be doing all women a service if she laid that 19th century rubbish aside. Rape is a tragedy, but its a tragedy of patriarchy and it does not destroy women, doesn’t take their soul and doesn’t have to destroy or break up families either. Women suffer but they survive because they are strong. Possibly that’s the story that she wanted to tell, but as I said in my criticism, if Oates can’t bother with keeping me engaged with an interesting and believable story from the beginning, why should I struggle to the end?

        I’d suggest you spend more time reading literature that has survived the test of time and learn what character and plot development really entail.


        K. Talbert

  2. Samuel Sampson says:

    P.S. The setting was in New York, not Michigan.

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