In her gracefully sprawling new novel, Joyce Carol Oates delivers a modern family tragedy with a theme as painfully primal as "Oedipus Rex." Over the course of 400-plus pages, we watch, in a kind of slow-motion horror, as life at the Mulvaneys' High Point Farm in upstate New York is wrenched apart by an act of careless brutality inflicted by an outsider upon the family's only daughter. The rape of the almost-too-perfect Marianne -- spoken of in hushed voices and euphemistic language designed to efface its blunt horror -- comes to haunt each member of the family in a different way.
Shocked and embarrassed by Marianne's "trouble" (and unwilling to punish the young man who brutalized her), the community of Mt. Ephraim turns upon the Mulvaneys, and they turn upon each other. Marianne's mere presence becomes intolerable to her increasingly erratic father, who is filled with rage at his daughter's defilement and at the town's betrayal of his trust. She is banished from the house; her two older brothers send themselves into exile. While at college, Patrick -- as aloof and angrily obsessive as the Unabomber -- plans an act of rough justice against his sister's rapist.
Reduced to the bare essence of its plot, Oates' book sounds uncomfortably like a movie-of-the-week melodrama -- a high-minded plea against the horrors of date rape. With its atmosphere of secrecy and doom, it might appear merely another example of Oates' gothic imagination run amok: The Fall of the House of Mulvaney.
But this book is much more than that. Detailing the small rituals of intimacy that define a close-knit family, Oates pulls us gently into the comfortable Mulvaney world. When this world begins to break apart, we fully grasp the extent of the tragedy -- and the unsettling fragility of a life that seems at first as solidly anchored as the Mulvaneys' old farm house. Oates -- as obsessive as the Mulvaneys themselves -- follows each thread of the story to its conclusion -- a conclusion that hints at a kind of reconciliation and something close to closure. This is a novel that comes close, very close, to being as rich and as maddeningly jumbled as life itself.