Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Rating: 4/5

In some ways, this book reminded me of Anne Rice's The Witching Hour -- it was long, full of histories, and the supernatural element was delayed in arriving, and sparse in actual appearance. Unlike Rice's story, however, The Accursed is peopled with many actual historical figures (e.g. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt) and set in Princeton, New Jersey in the years 1905-6.  There were dozens of characters in this book, to the point where, unless you have a great memory (which I decidedly don't), you'll become confused about who people are, what happened with each of them, and their relationship to each other. I needed one of those character maps, like this one I found when I read Middlemarch, or perhaps even a physical copy of Pearce van Dyck's "Scheme of Clues" -- for even the characters needed a map to keep track of what was going on.

I can't imagine the amount of work it took to put this book together. Oates herself must have had some sort of massive outline. I have no idea how historically accurate the details and characters are, but I'm sure that, even supposing artistic liberties, Oates must have done a huge amount of research.

This story touches on just about every social issue you can think of -- racism, women's rights, sexual "deviance" (mentioned only as "the unspeakable"), politics, socialism, religion...sometimes I found myself wondering why this book had to be about everything. In some cases, the issues were inseparable from the lives of the characters. But I felt like the socialism issue, and the parts of the book covering the characters of Upton Sinclair, Jack London and the like might have been unnecessary, adding more bulk to the already complex and over-populated story.

Many of Oates' characters were well-written and life-like, in that they inhabited grey areas, had many faults, and saw the world in their own particular way. Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair especially struck me as people who had the best intentions, but were trapped by their own sets of rules that caused them to suffer, because they couldn't see outside their own perspective. It evoked a measure of sympathy in me to see how they were confused and angry when their rigidity of thinking and/or acting failed to create their desired results. Many characters in the book suffered in this way at some time or to some degree, causing schisms in relationships. However, I was also irritated by their blindness to their own faults, the blame-shifting, and of course the various prejudices. I appreciated that Oates made her characters human in this way, as none of them were wholly good (except perhaps for the angelic Annabel and the progressive Wilhelmina), or wholly evil (except, of course, the agents of The Curse).

Oates' writing is expressive and detailed. As a result, the pace of this book is rather slow, but most of the time she manages to keep it interesting, creating a very non-romantic picture of this time and place in American history. The character of Adelaide Burr made me grateful that I am not living with my own chronic illness in her time, sheltered and isolated from information by lack of technology and antiquated sexist ideas. This book does not hold back in its depictions of elitism, racism, sexism, and every other kind of prejudice that was in existence (and being questioned) at the time. Even the narrator, writing in his old age in the 1980's, showed symptoms of discriminatory attitudes.

Speaking of the narrator, he was the one thing I didn't like about this book. I found him to be intrusive, and little more than a device to excuse certain aspects of the book. He introduces himself as a "historian, not a literary stylist", which gives him (i.e. the author) the right to info-dump with impunity, in footnotes (I hate  footnotes, especially in novels), and in small chapters between story events. He even suggests the reader skip certain parts if we aren't really interested in the details, but of course you can't do it. His whole presence felt like the author trying to excuse her own perceived faults in the narrative -- unnecessarily, in my opinion. In fact, his repeated intrusions only served to jerk me out of the story and make me realize that he was, at least in one significant instance, privy to details that he couldn't possibly have known (the incident of Pearce van Dyck's visitation by an agent of The Curse impersonating Joseph Bell -- the inspiration behind Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes). In effect, the one major fault in the novel is the very device meant to smooth over the rest of them (which in my mind, don't exist).

The ending of this story was written as an all-caps sermon by the original instigator of The Curse, and left us with a grand twist that I found quite interesting, and rather amusing. I will not spoil it, but I will say I'm kind of shocked that I haven't seen any outraged response to it online.  Though certain aspects of the mystery remain incompletely explained (such as "The Bog Kingdom"), and certain characters had a bit of a "quick and tidy" conclusion, I felt it was a satisfying, if unusual, ending.

If you like "long reads" and early 20th century American gothic (and/or history), this book is probably for you.

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