I’d like to defend Joyce Carol Oates —she’s had so many rotten reviews of this, her latest novel. Reviewers, I reason, must get tired of a writer who publishes a novel a year (Mother, Missing is Oates’s 44th) and seek something snide to say like ‘time to slow down’ (the Guardian) or ask, like Patrick Ness in the Daily Telegraph, how this esteemed author can produce ‘a novel of such careless mediocrity?’
But, alas, I think Ness is right and the best I can do is to say that I found the autobiographical origin of the book more interesting than the novel itself, raising questions about where fiction and memoir blend.
Mother, Missing is about a daughter’s grief for her widowed mother whom she finds stabbed to death in the garage of the suburban family home in New York State. The novel’s narrated by 32-year-old Nikki Eaton. With her punk hair style and her married lover she’s depicted as crassly immature. What follows is an uneasy moral record of how, through the mourning process, Nikki belatedly grows up.
The murder of Nikki’s mother, Gwen, allows Oates to dramatise the shock of a parent’s death but is somewhat incidental — though it brings on board a useful romantic detective — for the murderer is rapidly caught. Perhaps the main problem with the novel is that the mother whom Nikki and her older sister Clare miss is so unremittingly good. Gwen Eaton is the perfect housewife, knitting, sewing, baking bread, concerned with church, charity and community. You could sum up her moral code as Be Nice! Although Nikki discovers, inevitably, that Mom has a few less than nice secrets, they’re no big deal.
Nikki spends a year going back to live in the family house, trying to be as nice as Mom, baking bread and telling kind lies to make people feel better. She’s only set free — morally improved and matured -— when Lucille (a distant cousin who’s been around and so can tell it like is) turns up to tell her that ‘missing your Mom can be a place to hide, see? Like that house …. After a while, it’s time you came back out.’
In a web-site interview Oates says that the character of Gwen Eaton is modelled on her own mother, Caroline Oates, who died in 2003. Gwen Eaton has the same ‘upbeat personality, personal warmth and instinct for sympathy, her homemaking skills, [her] friendships with other women’. Later in the interview, Oates says, ‘I seem to be one of the very few individuals who felt or feels no ambivalence about my mother. All my feelings for my mother were positive, very strong and abiding.’
Maybe the lack of ambivalence is the problem. I can’t help wondering if in writing this book Oates wasn’t doing what Nikki was doing, using the novel as Nikki did the house — as a place to hide. Perhaps it’s worked as therapy. It makes a clumsy, slackly written novel. The different responses to the mother’s death of the two sisters, and the conflict between them work well. But the male characters — Nikki’s lover, flirty brother-in-law, good-guy detective, and ‘meth-head’ murderer — are stereotypes. It’s the writing itself that most disappoints, particularly such asides to the reader as ‘it will happen to you … you cannot prepare for it and you cannot escape it’.
This sentiment’s echoed by Lydia Flem in The Final Reminder, a memoir subtitled ‘How I Emptied My Parents’ House’. ‘No matter what age we are,’ she writes, ‘the day will come when we find ourselves orphaned.’ Flem’s parents were survivors of the second world war but their experiences in a Nazi labour camp and Auschwitz are never spoken about so that Lydia grows up trapped in a ‘stifling silence’. In the process of clearing the house Lydia, like Nikki in Oates’s novel, gets to know her mother more truly after death. Interesting that while Oates creates a fictional murder, Flem, at one point, describes herself as being ‘like an obsessive investigator, a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Marple, searching the crime scene’.
Maybe the loss of parents turns us all not only into orphans but detectives trying to find those missing persons who we knew so well but never completely.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 29, 2005