Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates' THE ACCURSED

Yesterday, I finished read Joyce Carol Oates' 2013 novel, The Accursed, a Gothic thriller taking place (mostly) in and around Princeton, NJ, in 1905 and afterwards. (Oates herself now adorns the Princeton faculty.) She interweaves the stories of fictional characters with many notables from political and literary history--Woodrow Wilson (who was president of Princeton at the time), Grover Cleveland (the former US president was living in Princeton), Mark Twain (who has a rowdy, randy presence in some scenes in Bermuda), Upton Sinclair (living in penury in Princeton, but about to hit the big time with The Jungle), and (of significance to me) Jack and Charmian London, who appear in a long chapter later on called "The Nordic Soul"; Jack comes off as arrogant, drunken, racist, pugnacious, peremptory, etc. (choose your own unpleasant adjectives). We see most of the London stuff from the point of view of Upton Sinclair, who has idolized London--but now, seeing him Up Close and Personal, revises his opinion.

The story involves a "curse" that appears to have hit the town. Demons? Vampires?  Ugly deaths. Mysterious doings. There are some startling scenes--including a bride of about fifty seconds who's seduced by the voice of a mysterious character (clearly an Evil One) to flee the church and soar off with him to his dark kingdom while her groom and the congregation look on in dismay/horror.

Oates employs all her narrative magic in the telling of the tale. Her narrator is a later Princeton grad (1927) who was born about the time the events were unfolding (too mild a word for what's happening). The narrator gives us documents, the voices of others, periodic pauses to talk about the evidence, mini-lectures on the problems of storytelling (how do you narrate events occurring in different venues, she wonders--events that are simultaneous with one another?).

She also follows (as I've suggested above) the stories of multiple characters, most prominently Wilson, Sinclair, and some members of families whom the Curse most profoundly affects.

Very familiar with the devices of Gothic fiction, Oates both innovates here and revisits techniques used in other Gothic works--and even in fantasy/sci-fi fiction. For example, fans of C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will not be surprised when a young (and very troubled) lad named Todd Slade removes some bricks in a fireplace and steps into another world. (Where he will meet the ultimate challenge in the novel--a game with the Evil One ... winner takes all, including the head of the loser ... I ain't tellin' who wins--and how.)

I'm not a big fan of Gothic fiction, but I most certainly am an Oates fan. I first began reading her in 1970 (her 1969 novel them had won the 1970 National Book Award for Fiction--until then I'd not heard of her), and I've (pretty much) kept up with her novels (though not necessarily everything else she has written in the ensuing years--collections of stories, essays, plays, memoir). As I wrote in a Plain Dealer review some years ago, she has the dazzling ability to inhabit the minds of a vast array of people--and to make them not only credible but achingly real.  As I've also written in the PD, she (richly) deserves the Nobel Prize. No question.

Oh, and during the years I taught "Writing in the Liberal Arts" at Hiram College's Weekend College, I always used her great story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" a story available on Oates' website (link to story). I would often show the 1986 film based on that story--Smooth Talk (link to trailer for the film). (Film starred young Laura Dern, Treat Williams, and Mary Kay Place.) And I loved (and reviewed) her wonderful 2008 story collection, Wild Nights, a collection comprising tales about various actual literary figures (Poe, Dickinson, Henry James, and Twain among them).

Anyway, my pattern with reading her has remained the same. I don't necessarily read each new novel as it appears, but I buy it, and, pretty soon, I'll settle down and read the two or three (or four or five) that I've not read since the last one. (And so it is that in the past few weeks I've read both The Accursed and her later one, Carthage. I'm now caught up again!)

She's an American treasure, Joyce Carol Oates, and I'm grateful I've been alive to witness and enjoy her creations as they spill from her limitless imagination.

Joyce Carol Oates

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