“My Life as a Rat” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:  Literary Family DramaMy Life as a Rat
Publisher:  HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date:  June 4, 2019

Oates’ latest novel is raw.  It is hard to read, yet hard to put down.  The story is fiercely written in an urgent tone to expose every nasty aspect of paternalism and male entitlement.  We follow a 12-year-old girl from a working-class tight-knit Irish Catholic family.  The setting is South Niagara, New York during the 1990s.   Her life as a “rat” begins after she accidentally slips to her school nurse that her two eldest teen brothers were involved in a racially motivated attack that left a male African American honor student dead.   Once her father’s favorite, she is now exiled to live with her aunt.  Her dad has forbidden her mother and sisters to visit or even phone her.  She is in a new home that doesn’t feel like home and friendless in a new school.  Confused and in shock, she is easy pickings for a male teacher to sexually abuse.  It seems fitting that her family begins a slow mental and financial decline after banishing their youngest child:  A just punishment for deserting a child who did nothing wrong.

This storyline is nothing new for the acclaimed writer.  Violence against women is a recurring theme in her work: “Do With Me What You Will,” 1973, “We Were the Mulvaneys,” 2002, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” 2007, “Blonde: A Novel, 2009,” “The Sacrifice”, 2016.  Just when you think Oates must have finally run dry on the subject she pulls off another winner.   So why does Oates’ unwavering theme on the abuse of women keep working for her?  Possibly, it is her willingness to unabashedly dive into the darkest cavity of the human psyche.  And let’s face it—such tales are fascinating to read.   More importantly, her work has been part of  #MeToo decades before the movement existed.  She forces the reader to acknowledge that her male protagonists seeking emotional release by abusing women are mentally ill men.  And her female characters are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of a male-dominated society.   Unlike other writers, Oates does not use violence in a sensational manner.  She uses violence to echo the misogyny found in modern times, which is where her characters dwell. At least, that is what this reviewer thinks.

“Rat” has a lot in common with Oates’ 1996 novel, “We Were the Mulvaneys.”   The Mulvaneys are another large Irish Catholic family living in upstate New York. This once-proud family also began a descent into financial ruin after a disgraced daughter was either raped or had consensual sex with a high-school boy.  This reviewer preferred “Mulvaneys” over “Rat.”  The litany of traumas inflicted upon the female protagonists in “Rat” can seem like they are one too many.  This may be because the author expanded on what had been published as a short story a decade and more ago.  Still, this doesn’t mean that “Rat” isn’t another literary success in the world of JCO.  The characters are painfully real.  Oates is begging the question, how does a child feel safe and loved in a universe with rules one doesn’t quite understand.

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