Reinvention of the self is a powerful subject; its potency lies within the riddle at its heart. Is one's original self the true core, while re-creation is simply a carapace? Or is a new and evolved identity the authentic self, past history as useless as a snake's shed skin?
Mudwoman, the compelling new novel by the extraordinarily prolific Joyce Carol Oates, explores these questions of identity. The story centres on M.R. Neukirchen, the first woman president of an Ivy League university in north-central New Jersey, quite like Princeton, who has quashed down her early history.
Outwardly, M.R. is the picture of health and success, the embodiment of the American Dream. Raised by Quaker parents, she wins a scholarship to Cornell, distinguishing herself as a philosopher, later rising in the ranks of university administration. Tall and ruddy-cheeked, M.R. is hard working, friendly, earnest, idealistic and self-sufficient.
However, her prominence exacts great personal costs: She has no intimate friends, her secret lover is a married astronomer who distinguishes himself by his absence; she cannot sleep and her smile is "a grimace of pain." M.R.'s life is one of geological psychic layers. She is good at imposture, denial, walling off the deepest strata of her past. Though M.R. appears whole, inside she is fragmented, like a broken vase expertly glued back together.
On a trip to upstate New York for a conference, where she is to give the keynote address, M.R. takes a detour and finds herself in the landscape of her childhood, catalyzing a psychic encounter with Mudgirl. As a child, M.R. was pushed, shoved and kicked down into the mudflats beside the Black Snake River – a place that smells of "still water and of rich dark earth and broken and rotted things" – and abandoned.
The passages dealing with Mudgirl are visceral as nightmares, and harrowingly potent. Half-dead, half-alive, Mudgirl merges with the debris and broken crockery, old boots and skeletons of small drowned creatures until she is found and rescued by a trapper. The images of this near-naked waif, abandoned in the mud of the Black Snake River, pull the reader down and under into a primal world of Gothic horror, of being cast off and buried alive. Oates employs a tone alternately real and surreal, distant and interior, which enables the reader to take in this disturbing story.
It is the sensory links to her early experience that bring M.R. back to the childhood she has buried, the clawing sound of a crow's cry, "both jeering and beautiful: strange wild cries of yearning, summons," the smell of the river, the oozing feel of the mud. Memories flood back and the boundaries between Mudgirl and M.R., between childhood and adulthood, unconscious and conscious, private and public, disintegrate. M.R crumbles into physical and emotional collapse as she confronts her life and her past. In fact, Mudwoman is the portrait of a nervous breakdown.
This is both a novel of character and of politics. Oates enlarges her tale by dramatizing the United States' denial of its own dark past, single-minded in its blind patriotism, convincing the public that there is a direct link between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the later invasion of Iraq. "It was criminal ... it was cruel, stupid, quixotic – unethical: waging war on such flimsy pretexts." Not only is M.R. broken and tragic, her country is as well.
Mudwoman possesses the power of myth and fable, while offering the thrills and chills of macabre noir and grisly psychological horror: classic Oates. The border between a past self – no matter how desperate and degraded, and a successful, reinvented one – must be permeable. Mudwoman is about the reclamation of the self, in all of its earthy mire, just as the material of the mud-crawling caterpillar is reshaped within the chrysalis.
Ami Sands Brodoff is a Montreal novelist, inspired by Joyce Carol Oates's recent talks at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. She is at work on a novel, Faraway Nearby; she blogs at chez-ami.blogspot.com.