‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ and ‘A Book of American Martyrs’ by Joyce Carol Oates.

My local Book Club in Lucan Library regularly blasts me out of my comfort zones and download.jpginto the world of the Modern Novel. So it is I read ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates and found it a really good book.

It is written in that ‘tumultuous’ style of many American novelists (Saul Bellow comes to mind) where there is so much information constantly thrown at the reader that it is a dizzying experience at times. It is tempting to say that there is often just too much to take in and that such an amount of tiny (and great) detail interrupts the flow of the narrative. However, it is  this ‘overflow’ that is very much the style of the novel and gives it its momentum and its charm. And these details do indeed contribute to a very rounded description of the characters and provide information for the reader on the kind of people they are reading about, and also without that annoying method of halting everything so that a (sometimes rather lengthy) ‘descriptive paragraph’ can be inserted.  Corinne, for example, the mother who is at the heart of  the book and its concerns, is conveyed as the kind of person who could be described as ‘scatty’, but who also has a business sense which stays with her despite the demands of raising a family of five. One does not find out about these facets of her personality in a couple of descriptive paragraphs but from her words and actions  throughout the book. This is rather like the way one finds out about people in real life. 

I do have one difficulty with the book and it concerns its central event. This event occurs when one of the family undergoes a traumatic experience. I do not want to say any more and ‘spoil’ the book for a future reader, but I will say that I am not sure that the ensuing effects of this event on the family would necessarily be as great and widespread as Oates depicts, even though they are so serious and, indeed, devastating.

But of course I could be wrong. Trauma affects different families in different ways. On a personal level I know that a tragic deed can have far reaching consequences because when I was very young, there was a terrible event involving a young woman who was a namesake of mine. Subsequently and all through my youth I was constantly asked if I was related to her (because of our slightly unusual surnames. I am not directly related, as far as I know). The resonance of the event has died down as the years have passed and as I have grown older and yet just recently a stranger, somewhat older than I, surprised me with the old question: ‘Are you at all related to that unfortunate girl in that dreadful case some years ago?’ I was really taken aback at the way that event is still rippling outwards and so it is that I am very aware that the depiction of the long-term effects of the event  at the heart of the Joyce Carol Oates book could be entirely true.

There are the usual conjectures on the cover as to whether this is finally ‘The Great American Novel’ we have all been waiting for. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s certainly a great novel. And it’s not just another ‘entertaining’ work. It really strikes into one, and makes one think about things.

The same is true of ‘A Book of American Martyrs’ (2017), which I have just today (31.01.2017) finished. Over 700 pages long, it is a gripping novel, and a riveting read throughout. However, the last 100 pages might have been cut, I think, because they seem like something of an ‘add-on’ and the final pages seem a bit like a search for that ‘closure’ that we all seek after some horrendous event in our lives. However, it is my experience that, frequently, there is no closure possible and so this part of the novel does not ring entirely true to me.

Nevertheless ‘A Book of American Martyrs is a really fine novel, carefully structured and meticulously written about a subject always controversial: the right to life. It did not change my views on that subject (nor does Oates set out to do so) but it did soften my view of the ‘the other side’.

Thoroughly recommended.

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