In We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates writes with piercing clarity and deep sympathy of the dissolution of the American family—and an American way of life. The Mulvaneys—parents Mike and Corinne, children Mikey Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd—seemed to lead an almost charmed life on their rambling farm outside a small town in upstate New York (familiar Oates territory). Mike owned a successful roofing company; Corinne kept the semi-chaotic household bustling through the sheer force of her good humor (and devout Christianity); animals—horses, cats, dogs—thrived alongside the kids, although none was immune to the occasional scrape.
And then on Valentine’s Day in 1976, a high school senior raped the Mulvaneys’ beautiful, kind, sweet-natured daughter Marianne, and the bottom fell out of their world. Oates deftly, heartbreakingly traces the impact of the rape on each member of this family, exposing how swiftly and irrevocably good can be dragged down and corrupted into evil. The once-popular, respected Marianne becomes a kind of pariah, abandoned by her friends and pushed away by her parents. Her father, overwhelmed by grief and anger, lets the business slide, alienates former friends, and devotes himself to alcohol and law suits. Mikey Jr. distances himself from the family and from his former life by joining the Marines. Patrick, the family egg-head, at first retreats into his coldly rational fascination with Darwin and the theory of evolution, but once he’s at Cornell becomes obsessed with a scheme to avenge Marianne. With Judd, the book’s narrator, as his accomplice, Patrick stalks and abducts the boy who raped Marianne. The power of life and death is in Patrick’s hands, and yet when the crucial moment comes, he refuses to act on his power. Patrick’s act of mercy stands as an emotional and thematic turning point of the book, though the resolution is far from simple or painless.
As in previous works, Oates here covers many years and retraces the complicated, twisting paths that bring her characters to their present plight. But We Were the Mulvaneys departs from earlier works in the brilliance and vividness with which it evokes the tensions and pleasures of family life and family relationships. The Mulvaneys manage to be both “every family” and minutely realized individuals with their own quirky obsessions and personal tragedies. The book is also packed with the images and ideas of the decades it covers—the music, products, politics, social norms, and mores of the late 1950s through the early 1990s. This large, sharply etched, immensely readable book is an examination of the American dream, and of the harsh but also beautiful realities that have transformed that dream over those past four decades.
We Were the Mulvaneys is at once a rich textured novel of family life and love (including the abiding love of animals) and a profound discourse on themes of free will, evolution, gender, class, spirituality, forgiveness, and the nature and purpose of guilt. A master of her craft, Oates weaves a seamless web in which ideas blend perfectly with plot.
Joyce Carol Oates has often expressed an intense nostalgia for the time and place of her childhood, and her working-class upbringing is lovingly recalled in much of her fiction. Yet she has also admitted that the rural, rough-and-tumble surroundings of her early years involved a “daily scramble for existence.” Growing up in the countryside outside of Lockport, New York, she attended a one-room schoolhouse in the elementary grades. As a small child, she told stories instinctively by way of drawing and painting before learning how to write. After receiving the gift of a typewriter at age fourteen, she began consciously training herself, “writing novel after novel” throughout high school and college.
Success came early: while attending Syracuse University on scholarship, she won the coveted Mademoiselle fiction contest. After graduating as valedictorian, she earned an M.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin, where she met and married Raymond J. Smith after a three-month courtship; in 1962, the couple settled in Detroit, a city whose erupting social tensions suggested to Oates a microcosm of the violent American reality. Her finest early novel, them, along with a steady stream of other novels and short stories, grew out of her Detroit experience. “Detroit, my ‘great’ subject,” she has written, “made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am—for better or worse.”
Between 1968 and 1978, Oates taught at the University of Windsor in Canada, just across the Detroit river. During this immensely productive decade, she published new books at the rate of two or three per year, all the while maintaining a full-time academic career. Though still in her thirties, Oates had become one of the most respected and honored writers in the United States. Asked repeatedly how she managed to produce so much excellent work in a wide variety of genres, she gave variations of the same basic answer, telling The New York Times in 1975 that “I have always lived a very conventional life of moderation, absolutely regular hours, nothing exotic, no need, even, to organize my time.” When a reporter labeled her a “workaholic,” she replied, “I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of ‘working’ at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don’t think of them as work in the usual sense of the word.”
In 1978, Oates moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where she continues to teach in Princeton University’s creative writing program; she and her husband also operate a small press and publish a literary magazine, The Ontario Review. Shortly after arriving in Princeton, Oates began writing Bellefleur, the first in a series of ambitious Gothic novels that simultaneously reworked established literary genres and reimagined large swaths of American history. Published in the early 1980s, these novels marked a departure from the psychological realism of her earlier work. But Oates returned powerfully to the realistic mode with ambitious family chronicles (You Must Remember This, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart), novels of female experience (Solstice, Marya: A Life), and even a series of pseudonymous suspense novels (published under the name “Rosamond Smith”) that again represented a playful experiment with literary genre. As novelist John Barth once remarked, “Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map.” In 2000, Oates was a National Book Award finalist in fiction for Blonde, an ambitious and imaginative portrait of one of America’s greatest cultural icons, Marilyn Monroe.
The dramatic trajectory of Oates’s career, especially her amazing rise from an economically straitened childhood to her current position as one of the world’s most eminent authors, suggests a feminist, literary version of the mythic pursuit and achievement of the American dream. Yet for all of her success and fame, Oates’s daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast. Not surprisingly, a quotation from that other prolific American writer, Henry James, is affixed to the bulletin board over her desk, and perhaps best expresses her own ultimate view of life and writing: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
What was the germ of the book? Was there a single scene or character or theme that inspired you to write it?
Primarily, I wanted to write about family life—the mysterious and seemingly autonomous “life” of the family that is made up of individuals yet seems to transcend individuals; the joys, the sorrows, the continuity of jokes and humor; the shared pain; the conflicted yearning for freedom simultaneous with the yearning for domesticity; always, the unspeakable mystery at the heart of the family. I wanted to write about complex lives as they are interwoven with one another, always defining themselves in terms of one another.
Which one of the Mulvaneys is your favorite character?
It’s hard to answer—Marianne, Patrick, Judd, and Corinne are all favorites. Emotionally, I identified with Marianne; intellectually, with Patrick and Judd. My earlier sense of Patrick was that he would prove to be more violent, a terrorist, in a sense, obsessed with exacting justice for his family. But, as Patrick evolved, and came into his own, I saw that he was really a very civilized and judicious young man for whom “an eye for an eye” would be far too primitive a mode of justice.
Corinne, the mother of the family, is such a totally real woman—a mother all of us have known and remember from our childhoods. Is she modeled on any particular woman you have known? On your own mother?
Corinne is only partly modeled after several mothers of my acquaintance, including my own, Carolina Oates. These women are quintessentially maternal: warm, funny, immensely hard-working, generous, identified with their families to the suppression of their own personalities for long periods of their lives. I recall fondly how my mother helped me plant fruits and vegetables—especially a strawberry patch terribly prone to weeds. We lived north of Buffalo, on a small farm, much smaller than the Mulvaneys’, and much less affluent. We had pigs for a while, and always chickens and cats. No horses, unfortunately.
Corinne is so close to Marianne. And then she totally rejects her daughter after the rape—why?
Corinne does not reject Marianne. She chooses her husband over her daughter out of desperation and must live with that choice. But she never ceases loving, and grieving over, Marianne, the child most like herself.
When the Mulvaneys’ fall comes, it happens so fast. One day they’re riding high and the next they’re in the gutter—the American gutter of violence, homelessness, paranoia, law suits. Was there any way they could have averted their family tragedy?
If Michael Sr. had behaved differently, the Mulvaney tragedy would not have occurred. In the past, laws concerning rape and sexual assault were not as liberal as they are today in most states. Marianne knew that it would have been futile to press charges under the circumstances.
Do you think of this as a feminist novel?
The novel is not basically feminist; it has no ideology; it is a story about individuals, not a tract. Marianne exemplifies the way of love, magnanimity and forgiveness; Patrick, the way of intellectual analysis. In general terms, the tension is between a belief in Christianity and a belief in Darwinism: the one so spiritual, the other so intransigent in its physicality. In the end, through the experience of simply living, Patrick comes around to a spiritual transformation—the way of the community, living with others instead of in isolation. He overcomes his resentment and anger and falls in love at last, deeply and without calculation. And belatedly, he discovers his “Mulvaney-ness.”
The center section of the book is so dark and yet it ends on a note of hope and resolution. Where did this ending come from? Did you consider concluding on a darker note?
This is life, generations following generations. The destructive father is gone, and will be remembered, ironically, with affection. Old wounds are forgotten in the excitement and enthusiasm of the future. To be true to life, a novel must have an ending that is inevitable given the specific personalities of the characters involved. The novelist must not impose an ending upon them. What might have been a tragedy in We Were the Mulvaneys becomes something quite different, yet to my mind this bittersweet ending is inevitable.
What about Marianne? She seemed to be heading towards a tragic fate and yet she ends up happy and fulfilled.
Marianne, lacking bitterness, is the sort of a young woman to inspire affection and love in others. Always, people are drawn to young women like Marianne; for her, it was a matter of accepting herself as not despoiled, a matter of her coming to like herself once again. She was fortunate to find just the right man to appreciate her, shrewd Whit West with his background of treating wounded and abused animals. Whit was canny enough to know how to love her without scaring her off.
Animals play a tremendously important part in the book—in a sense the Mulvaneys communicate and love through their animals. Have animals always been important to you? Did you have some larger message in mind that you wanted to express through animals?
I’ve always loved animals, and have lived with them all my life. As a child I had kittens and cats, and tended quite a large brood of Rhode Island reds (chickens). I’ve never before written about the emotional interdependence of human beings and animals, though it has been so much a part of my life (and the lives of many of my friends). I hoped to show, in the novel, the intensely connected parallel lives of people and animals. For Marianne, obviously, Muffin is far more than merely a cat; he’s her deepest connection to her family and her girlhood, almost an aspect of her soul. In families with animals, there is always tragedy: animals age more quickly than we do, and their lives run out before our eyes. How difficult it is to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental . . . Yet it was a risk I was willing to take in order to tell the story of the Mulvaneys.
What about the house and farm? What is their meaning in the book?
Of course it’s a profound shock to lose one’s house, one’s farm and identity. And one’s trees . . . the spiritual connectedness between people and trees is quite emotional, too. I’ve always lived in a place with a lot of trees. When you lose your trees, you have lost beauty and solace and protection.
Why did you choose Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaneys, to narrate the story? Was it difficult to have him tell so much about the interior lives of characters he did not always understand?
Judd imagines but does not invent. He’s the intellectual and moral center of the novel, as it is presented in terms of language. It’s fitting that he’s a newspaper editor and writer. Many people in families feel themselves in repositories of the family narrative—as Judd says, he is assembling a kind of family album, not writing a “confession.”
Is this one of your favorite books?
We Were the Mulvaneys is perhaps the novel closest to my heart. I think of it as a valentine to a passing way of American life, and to my own particular child—and girlhood in upstate New York. Everyone in the novel is enormously close to me, including Marianne’s cat, Muffin, who was in fact my own cat. One writes to memorialize, and to bring to life again that which has been lost.