If Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, “Mudwoman,’’ were a computer game, it would be up there with Mortal Kombat and Doom for its grotesque violence, blood, and gore. Which is odd in a novel about a university president and her conflicts with her board.
But of course it’s about more than that. This particular university president, when she was 3 years old, was tossed into a muddy riverbed and left for dead.
By her mother.
As “Mudwoman’’ begins, Meredith (also M.R., also Mudwoman) Neukirchen, who was rescued by a passerby and raised by adoptive parents, has spontaneously begun to relive that trauma and to disintegrate. As her sanity gives way, she (and we) become less and less able to discern what is real and what is not. It’s an OK premise for a psychological horror story. But “Mudwoman’’ is terrible: sloppy, overwrought, nonsensical, and badly written. It’s like a recurring nightmare: gross and disturbing, but also tedious.
How bad is the writing? So bad that it works better as parody:
“M.R. had the impression that he’d been watching her . . . [w]hen she’d hurried into the first-floor restroom, in distress.
“(A bout of diarrhea, a swirl of nausea, and a tentative recovery, she thought. Running tepid water at the splotched sink and splashing it onto her face that was flushed, yet not unattractive. . . .’’
It is an understatement to say that Meredith is under pressure, psychologically and professionally. Over time, she had managed to bury the memories of her horrendous beginnings and become the first woman president of an Ivy League university. And she has big plans for reforms. But the year is 2003 and conservative headwinds blow strong across post-9/11 America. She has enemies.
In fact, legions of people, apparently, wish to harm this woman: her birth mother; the man her mother lived with who sexually abused her; much later, her married lover, Andre, who doesn’t necessarily want to hurt her but isn’t careful not to; the university professor she’d once rejected as a lover; a troubled student who claims she struck him when they were alone in her office. There is hostility from the university’s board, particularly the right-wing professor G. Leddy Heidemann, who wants to “destroy her, obliterate her.’’
Then there are all those random people who pop up out of nowhere, most likely products of her crumbling psyche - but maybe not: the driver of the big blue truck trying to run her off the road; the strangers who kidnap, strip, violate, and abandon her; the boy with the “rank animal smell’’ who wants to rob and rape and kill her.
There is a point where the novel becomes readable. Sadly, it’s at page 352: Meredith, recovering from nervous collapse, returns to Carthage, N.Y., to her adoptive parents’ house. Her mother, Agatha, has died, and her father, Konrad, now lives alone. And, like magic, the language calms down and events become sort of plausible.
Konrad is wise, like Yoda: Some things are simply paradoxes, he tells Meredith; “You don’t have to solve the paradox, nor even understand what it is trying to tell you - you only have to live with [it].’’ And “[T]hings change. And we change with them. And sometimes that works for the best, though we can’t think so ahead of time.’’
Nothing much happens in Carthage, but it doesn’t matter, because Konrad is the kind, intelligent eye of “Mudwoman’s’’ storm. If only Meredith (and we) could remain with him.
But no. Back she goes, to the university and to her lover:
“[A]nd so relenting then as a god might relent seeing the anguish in a mortal face he brought her with him on this voyage, he was a mariner in perpetual motion ever more fanatic and obsessive with the passage of years journeying continuously, restlessly, out of a fundamental metaphysical unease with the quotidian-life as with the particular domestic/marital/paternal life it was Andre Litovik’s fate to live and out of contempt for humankind he journeyed amid the most distant nebulae. . . .’’
Oates is famous for her prodigious output; she has a new book slated to be published in August, and perhaps another before the end of the year. Hopefully, she’ll take whatever time is necessary to get them right.
Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.