We Were the Mulvaneys

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book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Emma Burcart

I was initially interested in Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were The Mulvaneys because it is a story about family. When boiled down to the basic theme, everything I write is about family. The love, the tug and pull of the relationships, the dysfunction inherent in every family. I was prepared for a big, multilayered story and yes, even for tragedy. But when I read the line from the Los Angeles Times Book Review on the back: “It will break your heart, heal it, then break it again,” I rolled my eyes. I know about family and I know about heartache. The book wouldn’t have much to teach me.

But then I got to know the Mulvaneys. The novel opens with an introduction to the whole clan, from the point of view of the youngest child, Judd Mulvaney, now grown into an adult. He describes his nuclear family: oldest brother Mike Jr., “Mule” the high school jock; Patrick “Pinch”, the science nerd; Marianne “Button”, the good girl cheerleader, and Judd whom everyone called “Ranger.” Dad, Mike Sr. and Mom, Corrine, had met young and married quickly, leaving behind both of their hometowns to set up a family together on High Point Farm. They sound like the perfect American family, but from the first line we know that it will not last.

            “We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?”

            “For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.

            For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!- that’s what they deserve.” (1)

I didn’t want to like the Mulvaneys because I knew what was going to happen. Not literally, but I knew they were going to fall apart. I tried to keep emotional distance and study their family unit like a scientist. But it didn’t work. Oates sets up the family with such love, that it is impossible to remain neutral. The narrator is the key to this; Judd is the baby. He looks up to his brothers and sister, and while he may not know all of the adult things that go on, we see each of the characters through his young, adoring eyes. As a writer, this is important to me because it shows me that who is telling the story can completely change what story they are telling. In craft books and at conferences and workshops instructors are always asking, “Whose story is it?” When it is a family’s story, it’s everyone’s story. But even with a shared story, the decision of who tells it is a crucial one.

Judd knew that something had happened to his sister, at her prom on Valentine’s Day 1976, but he didn’t know exactly. This left us, the reader, guessing and trying to figure it out for a few chapters. Eventually we were shown, through Marianne’s eyes, her brutal rape and the hours and days following. Oates used a distance in the writing of these chapters that showed Marianne in denial. She wasn’t sure what happened, exactly, but her body told the story. Even as she was narrating that she couldn’t know, she described the scent of the vomit and blood in her mouth, the tears and blood stains on her prom dress as she hid them at the back of the closet. It was so powerful the way the thoughts and actions of the character, so contradictory, wove together to tell the truth of the situation.

There were points in the middle and toward the end of the story where Judd left us and we were told bits and pieces from other family members. But, because we had been so clearly set in Judd’s head, I trusted these other sources as accurate. I knew that Judd wouldn’t have given the story over to them, even for a minute, if he didn’t feel it was necessary. The chapter from the point of view of Mike Sr. toward the end, after everything had fallen apart and he was drunk and living alone in a room above an old Chinese restaurant, was amazing. The way Oates made everything seem foggy and off balance, made me feel as if I was drunk while reading. The father was the one narrating the scene, but it was a distant third person as if it was his former self, or an omniscient version of him looking down on himself. He missed whole chunks of information and time, and couldn’t be sure why things were happening the way they were. It was more than just an unreliable narrator. It was a drunk and dying narrator. It was amazing.

Oates’ descriptions are clear, vivid, and the language beautiful in its simplicity. When I went back and looked at all the descriptions I had underlined I saw that one of her specialties is the simile. Oates uses similes which give an exact picture of what is being described while also matching the themes of the novel: family, farming, small town life, roof repair.

            “She knew he didn’t mean it, yet what he might mean was couched so slyly in what he didn’t, like wheat kernels amid chaff, she was left unnerved.” (422)

This led me to realize something about myself as a writer, too. I am drawn to similes. I enjoy reading them and I enjoy writing them. As much as I try and create metaphors for description, they always fall flat, sound wrong, or just don’t work. But similes come naturally to my writing, and they are what I love as a reader. Seeing it work for a writer as talented as Joyce Carol Oates, I am finally willing to give up the quest for the perfect metaphor and embrace my love of the simile. It is really ok.

The last piece of the writing that caught my eye was the way in which she ended and began the story with almost exactly the same line: We were the Mulvaneys. Even though so much had changed by the end, and the patriarch was dead, they were still a family. That was what the story was ultimately about. How a family can be ripped apart at the seams and still find their way back to each other. It was a lovely circular process and the use of the same line made that all the more powerful. And it wasn’t even a simile.

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