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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My three pennorth, 25 Feb 2013
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This review is from: Mudwoman (Paperback)
And a threepennorth it is. On the whole a masterpiece, subject to a couple of quibbles which I'll mention in a minute. However what I particularly seized me was that this novel explores a notional figure beloved of the right, and also sometimes advanced by people of other political orientations when it suits them.

This figure is frequently advanced in the context of an atrocity inflicted by a demented individual. No sooner is this individual's context, in the present or remote past, advanced as an explanation for his or her behaviour, than voices are raised caliming that not only have many human beings survived and thrived despite similar abuse and deprivation without turning into Eileen Wuornos, but some have even made it to the top - top being defined as hugely professionally successfully and (or) very rich.

Here, then, is a woman with a background to rival any real human monster, who has made it through the snakepits of academe and the highly masculine discipline of philosophy, to become the president of a Yale-like university and a revered celebrity academic at the age of 42. In real life how she would be celebrated! Even if she reiterated,over and over, how terrible her post-traumatic stress disorder could be, this in itself would be yet more cause to celebrate and revere her. The suffering would never be seen, is never seen, as any kind of abrading force of the gilt on the gingerbread, let alone evidence of less than perfect success.

On the contrary overcoming extreme early hardship and living with terrible psychological fallout subsequently is seen as PART of the success. In fact it's the price we make our heroes and heroines pay, isn't it?

In this novel the protagonist, Meredith, Merry, M.R., Jewell or Jedina undergoes post-traumatic flashbacks and psychotic fugues which make poor Adela Quested's trip under the mountain seem as unpleasant as an over-extended walk on a hot day without sunglasses. It is never possible to know how many of the awful things which happen to her, or which she perpetrates, are real experiences, but it becomes very clear that the fact she undergoes them in some dimension is more than enough to cause a complete functional breakdown. Reality is suffering and the fact that it is unique to Meredith does not undermine its highly effective impact.

The episodes are all intimately linked to her childhood horrors and are possibly delusional because they are so metaphorically exact - like the Freudian idea (ideal?) of a dream. Interesting, too, to see a description of madness in an extreme extrovert, as I take the heroine here to be.

Nowadays fictional geniuses are all savants, introverts, and pure scientists, like the girl with the dragon tattoo. Here is someone at the opposite end of the scale - a maestro of words, a communicator and befriender, prone to toppling in her madness from congeniality to neediness, from agonised suffering when rejected into the deep wells of paranoia.

Oates deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature - I hope she gets it. Her acuity is remorseless. Having said that some of the psychotic episodes were, despite their terror, somehow hackneyed. The rape, for instance, could not have been there, as an apocalyptic instance of suffering and cruelty. Yet, awful as it is, it seems a banal episode rammed into the story, with surprisingly little after-effect. It is recollected once later, and has none of the developing resonances of the other bizarre dreams/memories.

Likewise the beginning of the US's adventure in Iraq, whilst picked up repeatedly and woven into the story, just will not be woven and falls out again. The protagonist is said to be horrified by the prospect, even driven to madness by the thought of so many youthful deaths, but she's horrified enough already and has enough to be horrified by, heaven knows. As a metaphor or a trigger for her collapse it does not work at all, if it's meant to be either of these. It feels like a brave stab at disavowal of odious popular politics by the author.

Finally the ending simply felt, frankly, like something written by someone who is aware she's nearly out of ink and wanted to complete the paragraph. The novel is simply bitten off, like thread between the teeth. I have absolutely no idea what this means or why the whole structure is tossed aside in this way. Any bright ideas, let me know. I'm at a loss!
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