Mudwoman, by Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate, £16.99, 428 pages
Thirty years ago, Joyce Carol Oates wrote an essay entitled: “Why is your writing so violent?” – in response to the question most often posed to her by readers and interviewers. She noted that because serious writers “take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist”.
It is indeed a question rarely asked of male novelists and, as a serious writer, it is one that Oates has continued to ignore in her prolific subsequent fiction. However, her latest novel Mudwoman unabashedly addresses violence, both physical and psychological. In keeping with Oates’s usual style, it is shot through with menace and subtlety.
It opens with a little girl being dragged by her mother through the ugly backwoods along the Black Snake River in Beechum County, New York. The woman, who is suffering from religious mania, takes her bewildered daughter out into the marshes and pushes her into “mud the hue of baby shit and tinged with a sulfurous yellow” and holds her under with a stick.
Through a quirk of fate the child survives and, nearly 40 years later, has become a person so entirely different that the trauma of her past might never have happened at all. It is now 2002 and “Mudgirl” is MR Neukirchen, aged 41, a distinguished academic philosopher and the first female president of an historic Ivy League university.
MR is indefatigable, dedicated to her career and, despite a long-term affair with an older lover, lonely. Her days are taken up with meeting donors and dealing with college alumni – but never with her own concerns. Although she is a woman with “little sense of herself as a physical being”, she knows that if she had become a wife and mother, she would not have risen to such heights.
MR cannot, however, outrun her past, no matter how much distance she has put between herself and it. A lecture trip that takes her back to the landscape of her childhood stirs residual memories and they begin to rise, “like a narrow stream rushing through a crack in rock, enlarging the crack, to rush ever more swiftly”, until they start to tug her from her moorings.
With great skill, Oates drip-feeds the erosion of her protagonist’s position and persona. MR’s moral qualms at being a liberal in a conservative university in the aftermath of 9/11 are exacerbated by the attempted suicide of a student. Her efficiency and sound judgment begin to falter as forgetfulness, a fall and violent psycho-sexual dreams become more and more frequent.
And all the while her girlhood is coming back to her in increasing detail, from her deliverance from the mud to the Quaker parents who adopted her and loved her unequivocally. MR begins to crack just like the thick make-up she applies to hide a bruise.
Oates is an extremely visceral writer, whether describing a repellently tangible imagined scene of dismemberment (“an artery of the thickness of a supple young snake had been cut”), an electric storm (“Manic detonations in the sky, pulsing arteries, raw nerves, neurons – shut your eyes and it’s a brain aneurism”) or even love, “a virulent fever” to which MR had “never built up an immunity”.
Mudwoman is a genuinely unsettling book in which Oates pays her readers the compliment of never letting them settle or even being entirely sure about what they have just read. For a young novelist, this kind of risk-taking would be admirable; for a 73-year-old with more than 50 novels to her name, it is extraordinary.