We were the Mulvaneys – Joyce Carol Oates

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On one level this is a classic family saga – it tells the story of what at first sight seems like the perfect post-war American family – homely successful and self-made. But there’s a sense of foreboding. The seventeen year old daughter, Marianne, is raped after a Valentine prom by a boy from a wealthy established family. The rest of the book deals with the fall-out for the family: the Dad, Michael Sr, can’t handle it and sends his daughter away, effectively never seeing her again; the Mum, Corrine, maintains the facade of strength but denies what has happened, supported by a deep Christian faith; one brother, Michael Sr, just gets on with his life; another, Patrick, becomes more and more obsessed by it, eventually confronting and executing justice on the rapist; and the final brother, Judd, tells the story in this book.

The book is very impressive on psychological minutea and insight, delving subtly but deeply into the reactions of each person. It doesn’t always try to explain in full what people are doing or thinking, and why, but you can always see the ripples from the incident. The level of denial about what happened by the parents, especially Corrine, and the level of self-blame by Marianne, is astounding, with the former very much feeding the latter.

An interesting theme running through the book is faith: an unswerving Christian faith in god guiding their lives, despite everything, is crucial to the Mum and daughter’s reactions of denial and self-blame. Patrick, on the other hand, becomes a Dawkins-like Darwinian, ridiculing the idea of faith, though one is led to wonder whether his conviction about empiricism and science is in fact exactly the same as his mother’s faith: an appeal to something bigger to make sense of what had happened to their family.

Class also features heavily, though subtly. The Mulvaneys are working class made good, with Michael Sr the classic self made man who has built a successful roofing business and is now part of the civic elite in the area – in the country club, the chamber of commerce etc. Marianne is raped by the son of a local lawyer who is part of the traditional elite – landed, historically rich and powerful. It is this class difference between the two parties that has the impact: the rapist and family face no consequences from the event, whereas the Mulvaneys are ostracised, indicating that their status was contingent on the success and good will of the elite, whereas the elite’s status was solid. Who would be believed if it came down to it – the farm family or the establishment? Class may also be cause of the inherent inferiority the adult Mulvaneys feel, which seems to deter them from pursuing justice and leads then to blame themselves and Marianne for the rape, rather than the rapist.

An excellent and very thoughtful novel that successfully combines a gripping story with fascinating, believable characters whilst tackling some big issues.

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Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle

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Read July 2014

An interesting book with a complicated and obscure message. It’s the story of a world in which the Nazis and Japan won the war, and split the world, with the US being a kind of occupied buffer in the middle. It follows a number of people: Childan, who sells ‘authentic’ American wares to Japanese and German officials wanting to own a bit of the old world; Juliana, an American woman living a precarious existence who eventually goes on the search for the author of an underground book about what would be like if the Germans had lost the war; and a number of Japanese and German high officials who are trying to govern in a paranoid and unstable totalitarian regime.

It’s hard to say that there’s a moral to the story, but there is a theme: fictions. Through the book, nobody is who they say they are, nobody says what they mean and everything is obscured by the layers of lies, pretence and bluffs that are essential to propping up a totalitarian regime. It’s more subtle than Orwell’s 1984 though. It’s not simply that there is a totalitarian power that everyone knows is horrible but can’t speak about, or that they are indoctrinated unquestioning dupes. It’s that the people believe the fictions even whilst they see evidence to the contrary and are constantly unsettled and decentred by it.

Juliana goes near-crazy because she is travelling with a man she knows is lying to her, and is in fact a Nazi using her to get to the underground writer; Hawthrown, the underground writer, is reputed to be safely secured in a high castle (of the title) but is in fact living a normal suburb without any obvious threat or concern; Childan realises that his Japanese clients have seen through the sham that is the mass production of ‘authentic’ US wares but that they continue to pretend to themselves that they are real nevertheless; a senior Japanese official kills some Nazi thugs in his office but the Nazi’s pretend he didn’t to maintain order; Another senior official buys authentic wares from Childan because, though he doesn’t believe they have any traditional or spiritual value, he wants to believe; and in the end it transpires that the underground book may in fact be true, the Germans and Japanese lost the war, but the world continues to act otherwise.

The opaque nature of the story is amplified by the style of writing. To reflect the difficulties of communication between people from different countries, the dialogue is written in pidgin English, which strengthens the feeling that this is a world that is hard to to understand.

As a book it’s like its theme: obscure, hard to see through, difficult to get any clarity on.

Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole  

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Read June 2014

Wow, 700 pages long, an incredible book. It’s a roller coaster like story about Jasper, his Dad and an assortment of family members and friends. The plot is full of murder, arson, crime, philosophising, just-believable scenes and characters, and surprises that few writers could pull off. It’s a gripping story. Throughout it we follow Jasper’s relationship and journey with his Dad, Martin, both of whom are philosophical, socially awkward, verging on sociopathic. They are tied together by love / hate, a shared disbelief at the mundanity of the world and an inability to do anything differently. Jasper is continually haunted by his Dad’s larger than life personality, whilst Martin is constantly haunted by his brother, Terry Dean, a national legend who killed tens of sports stars for corrupt behaviour.

Ultimately, this is a kind of existential novel: it asks questions about how to live, why live, how to be a person, what’s acceptable and what’s not, how constrained people should  by social conventions, whether its better to live a remarkable immoral life or a conventional moral one . . .

One of the big themes is the struggle to find an identity. Jasper and Martin both have big personalities defined in both similarity and opposition to their other. They spend the book agonising, with Jasper in particular at times hating his Dad, at times loving him, at times accepting he’s like him, at times not. It has fantastic psychoanalytical insights. The other big theme is the smallness and largeness of the world. A huge story about big places (Australia and the Asia Pacific) and big ideas (identity, what life’s for, why live), the characters are few: Jasper, Martin, Terry, Carol (Martin’s first love), Eddie (Martin’s best friend / Terry’s spy). It seems to say: there’s so much to the world and, although we feel so overwhelmed by it, we in fact only touch and know a fraction.