Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates ***

I never expected to mention Joyce Carol Oates (uber-literary Princeton professor of creative writing) and Roald Dahl (one of the best in the long line British children's authors from Lewis Carroll to J K Rowling) in the same review. However, Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates and Matilda by Roald Dahl share the common plot of a precocious girl born into a horrific environment who rises way above her circumstances, in part by self-teaching herself to read and reading voraciously.

Beyond this they diverge. As befitting a children's story, Mathilda ends before puberty with a positive "living happily ever after" resolution. While the story of Mudwoman, aka Jedina Kreack, aka Jewell Skedd, aka Mudgirl, aka Meredith Ruth Neukirchen, aka M R, goes on to middle age ... where in modern literary fashion, it abruptly stops.

Both M R and the author are academics are Princeton University, making one wonder about the autobiographical nature of this late-life novel. However, ignoring this and commentary on the War on Terror, and Women's, Religious, and Class conflicts, M R herself starts out as a heroic character rising above her misfortunes, but as the story unfolds it becomes harder and harder to separate fantasy and reality.

In one segment, M R butchers another professor and dumps the resulting plastic bags of body parts at dumpsters around town. Throughout the novel M R's life is punctuated by real and/or imagined horrors done to and by M R. In the end, along with M R, I found it difficult to differentiate reality from fantasy, and my sympathy for this increasingly crazy woman waned.

More importantly to me, the initial M R is a success (President of Princeton University) and self-determined. Her motto for travel is "Arrive early. Bring work." However, as the story unfolds she becomes (or is revealed to be) powerless in the face of male society, or her innate femaleness, or her growing insanity. By the end, I cold care less which it was.

I'm sure this is a literary masterpiece, destined to become a classic, but like many such books foisted on unreceptive high school and college students, it requires more from the reader than might be reasonably expected.

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