Wednesday, 24 August 2011

We were the Mulvaneys

We were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
I have only read one other book by Oates back in 2009 but her name has stuck in my head as someone worth reading, which is what prompted me to pick up this one at a charity shop a while ago. Interestingly it is another tale about rape and it's aftermath, and, again, about how the ripples of consequences can spread and reverberate.

The Mulvaneys are an all American family; dad runs a roofing business, mum stays at home and cooks, eldest son is the football star, second son the brainbox, daughter is sweet and popular, and the youngest son, Judd, relates this tale of their downfall and redemption. It is a little like something out of The Waltons, only set in the 1970's. I can almost hear them calling 'Goodnight' to each other between the bedrooms of High Point Farm. They are wholesome and happy and bound together by their shared life:

"Always it seems, hard as I tried I could never hope to catch up with all their good times, secrets, jokes - their memories. What is a family, after all, except memories? - haphazard and precious as the contents of a catchall drawer in the kitchen (called the 'junk drawer' in our household, for good reason). My handicap, I gradually realised, was that by the time I got around to being born, my brother Mike as already ten years old and for children that's equivalent to another generation. Where's Baby? - who's got Baby? the cry would commence, and whoever was nearest would scoop me up and off we'd go. A scramble of dogs barking, their eagerness to be taken along to wherever, a mimicry of my own, exaggerated as animals are often exaggerations of human beings, emotions so rawly exposed. Who's got Baby? Don't forget Baby!" (p.4)

So Judd builds for us, the reader, this picture of such an idyllic family life, full of warmth, and then it all goes horribly wrong. After a fateful Valentine's Day dance Marianne gets drunk and is raped, and the cracks begin to show in what you think is a strong and loving family. Judd is left trailing in the wake, being a young teenager and not really understanding what has happened or why it is so devastating. Interestingly for a woman Oates writes mainly about the male reactions to the event, and it is their behaviour and emotions that dominate the story. Michael senior, the father, reacts predictably and confronts the young man responsible and ends up arrested himself. Marianne refuses to press charges because she has such a hazy recollection of the rape, and blames herself for getting drunk. After her initial physical shock she withdraws into herself, but by this time the family is so concerned with how Mr Mulvaney is behaving that her hurt is completely overshadowed. Michael gradually becomes ostracised by the community as he tries to get justice for his family (Marianne becomes kind of lost in all this, as it becomes something that happened to them all) but at the same time he cannot bear to see Marianne and so she is sent to live with a distant cousin of her mother. Mike and Patrick, the older brothers are both wracked with guilt at being so powerless, forced to come into daily contact with their sister's rapist. Mike gets into confrontation with his father and eventually leaves and joins the army. Michael takes to drinking and the business goes slowly downhill. Patrick goes off to Cornell but continues to be preoccupied with Marianne and the "execution of justice", and eventually ropes Judd into his plan to get retribution for the crime. The rape itself takes on an almost mythical status, not a physical act, one that Marianne appears to recover from, but the symbolic event that has this power over their lives.

Meanwhile the women just get on with life. Corinne, the mother, tries desperately to carry on regardless, pandering faithfully to her reprobate husband as he goes further and further off the rails. I did not like her as she seemed unable to confront him and simply sacrificed the family that she had worked so hard to create in an attempt to placate him. She allowed him to send Marianne away, and to keep her away, causing her to carry all the blame for the destruction of their family. She does nothing to prevent the spiralling out of control of their lives, nor to prevent her husband's descent into alcoholism. It's as if she has to keep up this front of normality, telling everyone, including I think herself, that everything will be fine. She spends the entire book completely in denial about the catastrophe that has befallen them. And Marianne waiting patiently, first at the cousin's home, then going away to college and living in a strange worker's cooperative, for the call to return to her family, one that never comes, living with the feeling that she has shamed her family and deserves this punishment. She becomes this extreme version of self-sacrifice, physically wasting away and neglecting her studies in order to work harder for the co-op. She abandons her life several time in order to avoid making close relationships with others, but seeking out places that mimic her family environment, searching for a new sense of belonging.

There is a lot of suppressed emotion in this book. A lot of men being men and not wanting to show how they feel, or being unable to articulate it. So they hide behind other things, like drinking and the army. Patrick is the one who confronts it in the end, in a scene that is both gripping and cathartic, and hugely satisfying, when he enacts his plan to execute justice against Zachary Lundt. I won't spoil the event, but it felt to me like the turning point of the book. Then we return to Marianne and watch as she finds a new place that feels like home and learns to trust in life again. Corinne works to rebuild her life, having held her husband's hand at the end, and by sheer force of will drags her family back together. While the characters were not necessarily sympathetic they were certainly all interesting, and in spite of them all going their separate ways you get this ongoing sense of a bond between them, the shared history, of both the good times and the trauma, keeps them linked. It is a story about family ties, and even though it was a little bit too 'feel good' I think we all deserved the ending.

" 'Judd, I just can't get over your brother Patrick! He isn't at all what I'd expected.' I asked, curious, what she'd expected, what Mike had led her to expect of Patrick, and she said, 'Well, I guess I expected someone not so - Mulvaney.' I asked, 'But what is Mulvaney?' for the concept was genuinely baffling to me. Vicky said, stroking her belly that was so pert and round beneath her buttercup-yellow maternity smock, and fixing me with a look as if I must be joking, to ask such a question, 'Why, you. all of you.' " (p.445)

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