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.

High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Wendy Dutwin

The six stories from each decade of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2006 collection High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories, 1966-2006 showcase the development of an artistic talent devoted to the mastery of her craft. She is a master of the short story form and I learned so much from her, particularly how to build suspense with tiny details.

Oates is constantly exorcising the demons of darkness from her past by revisiting certain themes again and again in her work. It’s no accident that I’m so drawn   her stories. The themes that fascinate her are the ones I find myself most interested in exploring in my own writing. She has a fearlessness I still struggle with in her approach to these subject matters, but I grow braver with every story of hers that I read.

Oates makes zero apologies about the women characters in her work. Feminist critics describe them as weak, needy and passive, withdrawing from emotional and sexual intimacy and drawing themselves toward masochistic encounters. Many of them have experienced abuse, sexual, physical, emotional or all three. But Oates is fascinated with why women are this way, perhaps even why she might be that way as her own history riddled with physical and sexual abuse. She seems to be writing through the violence to discover her own truth.

By having the courage to look at the ugliness in her own past, she illuminates a path for others struggling to find their way. Again, it shows the power of fiction, the social importance of it, the revelation of human truth in the words of the brave. She talks about this in the notes following the High Lonesome collection when she says:

“Prose fiction is, in essence, the realization of an elusive abstract vision in elaborate and painstaking construction, sentence by sentence, word by word. The daunting task for the writer is: what to include? what to exclude? Through our lifetimes a Sargasso Sea of the discarded accumulates, far larger than what is called our ‘body’ of work, for each story is an opening into the infinite, abruptly terminated and sealed in language.” (661-662)

One only has to look at a classic short story like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to understand what Oates probably wrote and discarded to get to what she ultimately kept in a story so rich with nuance, subtext and horror. Connie is so vain, a typical naïve teenager aware of her good looks, but blind to her empty soul. Arnold is a fascinating character that a writer knows Oates developed “in elaborate and painstaking construction” because of the endless interpretations that surround him. Is Arnold a man or the Grim Reaper? When Connie looks out to “the vast sunlit reaches of land behind him and on all sides of him” at the end, is she staring at a shepherd who is going to walk her through the valley of the shadow of death? Does she transcend beyond her bodily vanity to something spiritual and greater when she leaves the house to save her family, the first selfless act she performs in her life? These are the questions that fill a writer with excitement when contemplating the words of a writer like Oates and dissecting how she chose this word and put together that sentence.

All of her characters are deeply wounded with psychological scars that have no easy answers. The temptation to avoid such twisted characters that cannot be wrapped up neatly by the story’s end is one that Oates resists; she prefers mess and complication, because that is life. But in her brave and honest hands, that darkness of life takes on a greater beauty. Her stories transform loneliness, rape, suicide, murder and other forms of loss into a broken, but recognizable tapestry of our own humanity. And to do that in the structure of a short story highlights the rhythm and poetry of her prose, proving that her prolific quantity of work carries with it an enormous quality, too.

Wild Nights

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book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

I found Oates’ collection of fictional stories about the last days of Poe, Dickenson, Twain, James and Hemingway to be creative and engaging. She encapsulates the personality of the five writers within her fictional characters and creates a setting, plot or fate, wildly improbable, but somewhat related to the life they actually led.

In the first story “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light House,” the fictional Poe has agreed with his patron to isolate himself in a lighthouse and keep a diary to record his activities as part of an experiment. Oates creates a mystical, dark, gloomy setting and mimics the “fated/doomed/ecstatic quintessential voice of Poe.” From this story, I learned about the importance of voice to develop character and portray changes in personality. The story provides a good example of how the setting also becomes a character. I’d like to emulate her techniques in developing the interaction between the character and the setting.

In the second story, “EDickinson RepliLuxe,” physical replications of famous people reliving specified periods of their lives are available for purchase. The Krims, hoping to brighten up their stale marriage, purchase Emily Dickenson, from age 30 to the year of her death at age 55. I was enthralled with the premise of this story and the powerful narrative utilizing parallel time periods– the Krims living in one version of story time and the fictional Emily Dickenson reliving the years 1830-1886.The tension and violence between the characters resulting from their different personalities and lifestyles drives the narrative. From this story, I learned a clever technique for manipulating time. Oates derived her fictional version of Emily Dickenson’s character “… so teasingly inward, elliptical, female-mystical…” from Dickenson’s poetry, letters and photographs. I can see that research yields impressive results.

In the third story, “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906,” Grandpa Clemens “collects” pretty girls between ten and sixteen. They become his “angelfish.” His own daughter is incensed by his unsavory behavior, and in the end, Grandpa Clemens ends up being taunted and mocked by his angelfish which leads to his death. Again, Oates has done her research drawing on Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence 1905-1910 edited by John Cooley, and other published biographical information, to create a fictional version of reality. I enjoy reading literary biographies but hadn’t thought of looking for story ideas in the foibles of the subjects. Now, I’ll be looking for story ideas based on the unsavory qualities of my favorite authors—preferably dead with no living relatives as appears to have been the case with Twain.

The fourth story, “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” revolves around a fictional Henry James as an old man who attempts to volunteer at a hospital to help veterans. Despite his stature as a famous author, he grovels before the nurse supervisor and accepts odious assignments that weaken him physically. He worries about dying but won’t give up. Eventually, he succeeds in establishing a friendship with a veteran, a relationship that reverses when James becomes infirm. Oates’ high regard for James is evident by the theme and characterization in this story. In her notes, she comments that James hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged for his impact on the work of other writers including. Oates’ has motivated me to read more literary biographies and experiment with characterization by exaggerating traits and habits of successful authors.

In the fifth and last story, the fictional Hemingway plays with his gun and thinks about his life. His contempt for women is evident and also his dependence on “the woman” he lives with. Oates captures Hemingway’s narcissism, recklessness and anger and mimics his “tautly written, minimalist, and deeply ironic short stories.” In her notes, she credits him for creating an American vernacular and for developing “the deadpan understatement of a hurt too painful to be acknowledged.” This story serves as a good example of a complex narrator/character who uses denial and self-injurious behavior to deal with the painful situations in his life, arising in good part from his biased and flawed perceptions of both himself and the world around him. I’d like to emulate her techniques in characterization when creating unreliable narrators.

Because of Hemingway’s notorious machismo, I’ve read little of his work and failed to fully appreciate his influence. I didn’t enjoy reading the story but it served as a good example of how to create a narrator with biased and flawed perceptions.