Hello blogging friends! It was good to take some time out but it’s also nice to be back; I missed you all. I’m also glad to see the back of August this year, which was a dreary, oppressive kind of month. I’ve come to the conclusion that August, like January, is a seasonal low point and there is nothing much to be done about it, apart from removing all expectations of creative achievement. I think that September should be my month to catch up on all the book reviews I haven’t written, and then October will herald the start of the new academic year and the changes entailed by a new teaching position. I feel like I’m edging towards a precipice, although in reality I don’t expect very much will alter. I really must stop living one whole extra life in anticipatory fantasy, on top of my actual life which is altogether more ordinary.
Anyway, back to the books. Although I’ve read several novels that ought to have precedence over it, I’m going to review Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Mother, Missing, which I finished on the weekend. Despite Oates’ prodigious literary output, I’d only ever read one novella by her before – a slim bitter pill of a book called Beasts, about disquieting sexual relations between a student in a creative writing class and her professor. I remembered it as being starkly powerful, a book that didn’t pull its punches and wasn’t bothered about the reader’s moral sensibilities. I rather liked it for that, although I seem to recall that the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. My impression of Joyce Carol Oates was of an invasive, insidious writer, someone who didn’t seem to be doing very much on the page but who managed nevertheless to leave you queasy and alarmed. This sounds rather off-putting but it shouldn’t; Oates is not a comfortable writer, she isn’t going to tell you that everything is going to be fine, that people are good when you get right down to it, that our unresolved contradictions and humble kinds of shame will be wiped away by joyful, unexpected epiphanies. But precisely because of this her characters can often leap off the page and almost assault you with their pungent humanity. She is also remarkably accessible; I read Mother, Missing uncertain at various points across the narrative whether I really wanted to keep going, but simultaneously unable to put the book down. At almost 500 pages, it was a surprisingly quick read.
The story revolves around Nikki Eaton, a single thirty-something journalist with a married lover, Wally Szalla and a close relationship to her family. Her life is turned upside down when her mother, Gwen, is found violently murdered (no spoilers, this much is declared on the back cover) and Nikki is obliged to enter a period of grieving that profoundly alters her sense of identity. Joyce Carol Oates based the character of the mother on her own (also recently deceased) and says in an interview in the back of the book: ‘There is so very little that literature has been capable of saying about genuinely “nice”, “good”, “good-hearted” individuals that I took it as a sort of challenge to create a portrait of an unfailingly “nice” woman whose very “niceness” becomes a liability.’ Gwen Eaton is indeed portrayed as the perfect kind of good mother; she bakes, she sews, she nurtures; her life is given over to good deeds and charity works and she never has a cross word to say to anyone. She is not happy unless she is being helpful to some lame duck, extending her boundless generosity and her all-encompassing love. Yet it is these very qualities that put her in danger and result in her vicious murder. This conundrum is something both her daughters must struggle with in the aftermath of her death. When I reached the murder, I thought the novel would take a turn into crime fiction, but in fact it has no interest in this sort of puzzle. Instead the work of mourning becomes the mystery that Oates explores and she does so with tremendous intelligence. Mourning someone as essential as a mother messes with the calibrations of our soul, Oates suggests, so that everything we do is off-centre, distorted or out of kilter with our familiar responses. The emotional impact of this grief is heightened when the mother is someone so good, so loving, so kind, that her daughters have never really separated from her. When Gwen Eaton dies, she risks taking the good, loving parts of her daughters with her. In this way, I felt the novel was a subtle exploration of this whole concept of the Good Mother, and a quiet voicing of a number of doubts about its viability.
Where Oates excels is in her character portraits. They may not be people you like, but they will be people who fascinate. Nikki Eaton is something of a child-woman whose needy sexuality seems to be her only way to relate to others. Oates describes a period of intense change for her that begins when she moves back into her mother’s house and attempts to step into her mother’s shoes, taking on her schedule and her good works and her visiting. Her ‘bossy elder sister’, Clare, is a wonderfully vivid character who exasperated me so much I often felt I could give her a good shaking. Clare’s explosive, disruptive journey through grief acts as an intriguing counterpoint to Nikki’s compulsion to behave better, to become a more conventionally ‘good’ person. Most fascinating of all, Oates doesn’t allow Gwen Eaton to stagnate in death. As Nikki assumes her mother’s routine so she starts to come across the secret parts of her life that her mother had always hidden behind her coherent façade.
Overall, I found this to be a really interesting novel. It wasn’t one that I loved wholeheartedly, that I found a comfort read or a masterpiece of structure, but it conjured up a series of shadowy enigmas about mothers and daughters, about the process of grief, and about the strange, awkward transactions between people that we call charity, that remain with me still. What’s most intriguing in many ways is that Oates creates fictions that seem so very real and which are so very hard to resolve in neat and tidy ways. Apparently she writes with a quotation from Hitchcock above her desk to inspire her: ‘It’s only a movie, let’s not go too deeply into these things.’ I felt that was very fitting for a writer whose work depicts the complex surface of people’s lives whilst invoking in mysterious ways the deep, compelling and utterly unknown motivations that drive us in unexpected directions, but which we can never truly understand.