cover image Mudwoman


Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $25.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-06-209562-6

Oates begins her 38th novel with a nod to Nietzsche (“What is man? A ball of snakes”) that lies at the mud-caked heart of this tale of the rise and stumbling fall of M.R. Neukirchen, a brilliant academic whose childhood starts in the mudflats of the Black Snake River, where she is abandoned in 1965. But by 2002, M.R. has reached the top of the ivory tower. After a full ride to Cornell, and a Ph.D. from Harvard, she is now, at 41, the first female president of another Ivy institution. M.R.’s ambitious plans include upending the patriarchy and increasing diversity on campus, but both prove difficult in the post-9/11 “era of ‘Patriotism’ ” as the U.S. prepares to invade Iraq. M.R.’s identity, idealism, and sanity are all threatened as she wades through obstacles, including sabotaging right-wing colleagues and students. Though she has never considered herself the victim of sexism, M.R. must confront her gender when it becomes the lens through which her leadership is judged. Likewise, the philosophical question she has dedicated her career to answering—what is the self?—must be turned inward. Oates’s prose, dominated by run-on sentences to imitate fury or swiftness and a colloquial voice lacking nuance, is uninspired, but fans will relish the depth of this inquiry. (Mar.)