Friday, May 03, 2013

Book Review: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates


The tale of an inexplicable and deadly "Curse" that ravages the upper crust of Princeton society in 1905 and 1906, Joyce Carol Oates' newest novel plays with Gothic conventions masterfully.

Between the covers of this book you will find all the tropes -- demon lovers, murderous jealousy, insanity, miscegenation, beckoning apparitions, secret letters, even a dreary fairy kingdom. You will also find an absolutely enormous cast of characters; some are entirely fictional, like the august but sorely afflicted Slade family; others "real," like Woodrow Wilson (at that time the besieged President of Princeton University); ex-U.S. President Grover Cleveland; and penurious Socialist writer Upton Sinclair. What I did not expect to find was a darkly satirical commentary on Christian piety, ivory tower backstabbing, gaping race and class and gender divisions, the rise of utopian Socialism, and, of course, the "Gothic novel" itself.

Asserting itself as the first true account of these dark years, The Accursed is the patchwork manuscript of amateur historian M.W. van Dyck II. Himself a relation of a "Cursed" family, he presents with copious commentary a series of excerpts from  journals, letters, newspapers -- even a coded diary, whose code he has broken himself -- written by various victims and bystanders and detailing the long months of the "Curse." Thanks to his family connections, van Dyck finds himself  "privy to many materials unavailable to other historians." These documents, he claims, reveal the true origins of the strange and horrible series of events that seem to begin with the shocking abduction of the innocent and beloved Annabel Slade from the church the very moment her wedding vows are sealed. In his Author's Note, van Dyck declares his passion for the project:

I know that a historian should be "objective" -- but I am so passionately involved in this chronicle, and so eager to expose . . .<this> tragic series of events . . . <that> it is very difficult for me to retaincalm, let alone a scholarly, tone.

Oates' appalling tale of mysterious disappearances, gory murders, and unholy apparitions unfolds over nearly 700 pages and more narrative voices than you can count on one hand, all filtered through van Dyck's editorial influence and fevered imagination. In that way, The Accursed begs the same sorts of questions as James' classic psychological Gothic The Turn of the Screw: were supernatural entities the cause of these brutal and tragic events, or simply overwrought imaginations? In Oates' version of the game, this unreliable narrator trope is magnified by the fact of an excitable author/editor exhuming and interpreting the stories of other, equally excitable, and in some cases quite possibly insane, Princeton residents.

Even putting aside van Dyck's overly enthused editorial intentions, whose account is the reader meant to trust? Woodrow Wilson's? Probably not, since his portions are the quintessence of dramatic irony: though he sees himself as a victim, amusingly, he exposes himself as a whining, entitled, hypochondriac hypocrite in his notes and letters. Perhaps the author of the coded diary, patrician invalid Adelaide Burr -- who bears a striking (and self-referential) resemblance to that woman with the dreadful yellow wallpaper? Winston Slade, deeply respected reverend and beloved patriarch of the family hardest hit by the "Curse"? Winston's sorely afflicted grandchildren? Newspaper accounts of a plague of snakes at a girls' school? Yeah . . . maybe not. But together they form a rollercoaster of a story more entertaining and convoluted than anything Mrs. Radcliffe ever dreamed up. (On a side note: Oates pokes hilarious holes in the reputations of other historical characters than Wilson: Grover Cleveland is a bloated glutton who at one point in the story actually gets stuck while leaning out an open window; Jack London is a barbaric, slavering Id; and Upton Sinclair something of a sentimental sad-sack.)

When a fellow reader asked me if I "thought there was really a 'Curse'" I was brought up short. I couldn't find an easy answer, because, of course, there both is and isn't a curse in The Accursed. Postmodernism, at least partially, operates with the goal of challenging our constructed concepts of reality; I'm pretty sure Oates' point, with which she pokes at and false piety, misogyny, deeply institutionalized racism and class prejudice, is that our own moral failings make monsters, both real and metaphorical. The lens through which she chooses to get her point across is the funhouse of  the supernatural Gothic . . . if you can't, at some level, buy into the terror of the "Curse," that evil made manifest which punishes her corrupted version of Princeton, you'll also forgo the emotional power of the metaphor. If you can't conceive of both/and, you'll probably lose your way -- and your patience.

Even though I kind of love this crazy book, you will find me in agreement with other critics who have suggested The Accursed could stand to shed about a hundred pages of exhaustive period detail and be a better book for it (hence four stars rather than five). But I wouldn't begin to know where to cut, because even during the moments when I shook my head and thought, "What in the seven hells does all this have to do with the 'Curse'?," I was still vastly entertained. (One magnificent example: the mild, teetotaling, vegetarian Upton Sinclair, excited to meet the legendary Jack London at a Socialist rally, ultimately falls in with London's party for dinner. But poor Sinclair, so out of his element, becomes progressively more horrified by his hero's clay feet as the meal progresses; London's drunken gluttony and vivid white-supremacist declamations finally turn the evening into a bloody free-for-all.)

Do not mistake The Accursed for "merely" a Gothic novel; like a postmodern Northanger Abbey, The Accursed is itself a near-perfect example of the genre -- filled with despoiled innocence, secrets, "unspeakable" acts, suffering and (perhaps) eventual redemption. Still, you know Oates is playing a game (or maybe a long con) with it all. It's a true a postmodern joyride, and will challenge your patience from time to time. But go bravely into the insane level of period detail! Persevere! The crazies are entertaining, the "Curse" is scary, and blood is compulsory. And all (well, most) of the narrative threads are brought together stunningly at the book's end, in a blazing-with-brimstone sermon called "The Covenant," which upends all expectations, and leaves readers pondering the true nature of good and evil, and of our flawed human morality.

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