Joyce Carol Oates’s most recent book, Mudwoman, is an academic novel; the main character is in the first year in her role as the first woman president of a prestigious Ivy-League university that sounds suspiciously like Princeton. But it is also, perhaps, the first Gothic academic novel; the story oscillates between the adult M.R. Neukirchen in her role as president and her childhood as (trigger warning) an abused and molested child who was left for dead in the mudflats of the Adirondacks by a mother who was quite probably schizophrenic. As the novel progresses, the lines between Mudgirl and Mudwoman blur, and M.R.'s mental well-being begins to slip.
This book was engrossing. I was hooked from the first pages, and not just because it takes place in a university. The language and the story are at once disturbing and yet somehow feel real. But I’m putting it under my “Bad Female Academic” banner because it does feel real in how it describes the sacrifices (and some would even say, dysfunction) that are required for a woman to ascend to the position of university president at a prestigious institution. Single, solitary, and coming apart at the seams, M.R. represents the epitome of academic success and personal failure.
M.R. is involved in an affair with a married academic (equally dysfunctional, married to another academic who has her own mental illness to contend with), but other than that, she is removed and distant from those around her. One could make the argument that she is suffering from Attachment Disorder (she is equally distant and mechanical with her adoptive parents), which is common for someone who was abused the way she was as a young child. As I have argued elsewhere, mental illness can easily hide in higher education because of the clear standards and guidelines for success, standards that M.R. embraces and excels at. M.R. is easily able to perform the role of academic, even of gracious administrator and president. But her world quickly unravels.
There is an entire dissertation to be written about mental illness in Mudwoman, but, while reviewers point to the stresses of her new role as president, I am not so quick to simply dismiss M.R. as someone who is unable to do the job, not up for the rigors of being a university president, embodying the worst stereotypes of women in academia (anywhere, really). I would argue that M.R. might be experiencing the same symptoms her mother experienced, suffering from the same mental illness. As the lines between fantasy and reality blur for her, and she sees conspiracies all around her, one hears echoes of her mother’s paranoid ranting and delusions. Could M.R. be going down the same path as her birth mother, an institutionalized murderer?
This isn’t to discount, however, the mental toll that moving up the academic ladder has taken on M.R. She works so hard at being the “perfect” academic and administrator: likable, flexible, uncontroversial. She suppresses her core beliefs in order not to ruffle feathers; part of her mental break is displayed by M.R.’s newly-found articulation of moral and environmental concerns. Problematically, M.R. comes across as being naïve in these decision, but at the same time, she is giving in to her deeply held beliefs and conclusions. The naïveté comes from her belief that everyone will simply accept her decisions and positions without problem or controversy.
Finally (stop reading if you don’t want to know anything about the ending of the novel), I had a problem with the ending insofar as the choice M.R. is faced with is to either choose a simpler life closer to home in a small town, getting married, taking care of her father, or go forward and resume her role as university president. She appears to be punished to choose to return to her role as president. Now, if I believe that she suffers from the same mental illness as her birth mother, then regardless of her choice, she will continue to suffer. But it is nonetheless troubling to me that a woman is punished for her choice of aspiring for something bigger and better than her origins.
Or maybe I’m just projecting. I was moved by the novel, and I will most likely read it again, which is the highest compliment I can give to a work. It has stuck with me weeks after having finished it and I will continue to be haunted by it both emotionally and intellectually.