“For what are the words with which to summarize a lifetime, so much crowded confused happiness terminated by such stark slow-motion pain?” ― Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
This story begins as one about a "typical" American family, if there could be such a thing. I read this with a book group and we mostly liked the novel in spite of the melodramatic qualities of the story. The characters were well-defined and believable, but a tragic incident changes their lives with the result that the family is never the same again. It thus becomes a modern family tragedy with a theme as painfully primal as Oedipus Rex. Over the course of 400-plus pages, we watch, in a kind of slow-motion horror, as life at the Mulvaneys' High Point Farm in upstate New York is wrenched apart by an act of careless brutality inflicted by an outsider upon the family's only daughter. The rape of the almost-too-perfect Marianne — spoken of in hushed voices and euphemistic language designed to efface its blunt horror — comes to haunt each member of the family in a different way.
One reviewer described the novel as "as rich and as maddeningly jumbled as life itself." That it was but most of the jumbles I have experienced in my life (not perhaps typical) are much less exciting. The tragedy of the Mulvaneys is not their end and so there is some hope in this story. Overall it was a good read and perhaps even better for Oates devotees.
Joyce Carol Oates is a protean writer. That is her writing demonstrates a diversity and fecundity of style that is exceptional although not unique in my experience. Rather than devoting herself to one style or theme and honing that over many stories and novels, she has explored myriad ways to tell stories over a career that has produced more than three dozen novels (not counting those she has written under a pseudonym). I remember being mesmerized by the beauty of Wonderland; however not nearly as impressed with the tragic family saga We Were the Mulvaneys; and unable to finish tomes like Bellefleur. I even read and enjoyed one of her "entertainments" written under a pseudonym. It is not surprising that she is widely read, and a prescient critic of literature. There is a double meaning for this collection of previously published literary essays and reviews, “In Rough Country.” “It refers to both the treacherous geographic/psychological terrains of the writers who are my subjects. And also the emotional terrain of my life,” she writes in the preface. It’s an especially evocative parallel when you consider a pair of essays in the collection also titled “In Rough Country” (set apart from each other with Roman numerals). In the first, she examines the ecstatic violence of Cormac McCarthy’s work, in the second the brutal naturalism of Annie Proulx’s fiction. Rough country, indeed.
Thus it is her skill at criticism that is on display in this readable collection of essays. Just as she has with her own fiction and poetry, she displays a variety of interests and styles sometimes regaling the reader with biographical morsels, as in her essay on Edgar Allan Poe. I appreciated learning that some of my formative reading paralleled Oates' even as I admire her criticism and the immensity of her oeuvre.