Joyce Carol Oates turned 75 years old yesterday, and she’s now writing some of the best fiction of her career. More than any other American novelist of her generation, Oates has been ruthless in questioning her obsessions. Constantly experimenting with different styles, situations, and characters, she has refused to settle into a fixed viewpoint, either toward herself or other people. We recognize the Oates world of physical and psychological violence when we read her, but there has never been anything complacent in her vision. She doesn’t romanticize violence in the way Mailer or Hemingway do. She also doesn’t romanticize victimhood, even if victims of aggression are key figures in many of her works. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to Oates when she was young, though books like Son of the Morning, with its nightmarish gang rape, give us some disturbing clues. But whatever it is that powers her writing, she races on, making mistakes and learning from them, relentless in her pursuit of each new novel. In Virginia Woolf’s terms, Oates has put as much of her art down on the page as possible, has expressed herself completely, achieving “the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire” the work that is in her.
In her latest novel, The Accursed, the characters hunger to eat the people around them, and sometimes hunger to be eaten in turn. The hunger thrives on the mutual incomprehension between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, ministers and anarchists, journalists and university presidents, blacks and whites, artists and propagandists, social reformers and politicians. The novel repeatedly demonstrates how, despite our best intentions, we can fall in love with our ignorance, the compulsions that blind and fulfill us. Our appetites are terrible and destructive, but they also drive us toward whatever flawed, incomplete actions we might take — only to force us, in the end, to discover we’ve advanced the worst in us along with the best. Consummation is something to be feared and desired.
Our urge to feed on others is built into the novel’s prose. The narrator, M.W. van Dyck II, is writing the book in 1984. Van Dyck is a man in his late-seventies, with many of the prejudices of someone from his time and place. Oates doesn’t, however, spend the novel scoring cheap points against him. Instead, we often have a hard time separating his self-deceptions from his insights. Oates doesn’t want us to feel superior to van Dyck. She wants us to see that his flaws aren’t so different from ours. Our convictions might not age any better than his have.
Van Dyck claims to offer us his research on the Curse, a series of “mysterious, seemingly linked events occurring in, and in the vicinity of, Princeton, New Jersey, in the approximate years 1900-1910.” Yet he admits his account is a stylized distillation. The multiple “histories” of the events, he says, “have been condensed into a single ‘history’ as a decade of time has been condensed, for purposes of aesthetic unity, to a period of approximately fourteen months in 1905-1906.” Is he an unreliable narrator who doesn’t see how far he strays from the facts? Or a strangely reliable narrator who deliberately draws our attention to the fictions we impose on our experiences? He’s both, and the tension between these possibilities extends to every person in the story, and to the entire world of the novel, which is constantly shifting before our eyes.
Van Dyck’s voice is only one among the many voices he gives us, from diaries, coded journals, a deathbed confession, the text of a blasphemous sermon. All of the speakers are determined to have their say against the words of the people who come into conflict with them. What’s at stake isn’t just the interpretation of the Curse but the question of whether the men and women in the novel have wasted their lives. Their struggles mean more to them than they feel others can understand, and Oates catches them in the act of trying to impose that meaning everywhere they go. As usual, Oates is in thrall to her characters without being limited to any single viewpoint or any specific type of figure. She immerses herself as passionately in Marilyn Monroe in Blonde as she does in the reckless businessman Corky Corcoran in What I Lived For, the lawyer in Do With Me What You Will, the wife in American Appetites, the evangelist in Son of the Morning, the leader of the girl gang in Foxfire, the alcoholic father in We Were the Mulvaneys. No single person in The Accursed stands out as strongly as Corky Corcoran or Legs Sadovsky or Michael Mulvaney do. In compensation, though, this is the Oates novel that best displays her range, her feel for the pressures we all exert on each other.
2. The Bog Kingdom
The plot of The Accursed is a parody of a Gothic horror story, a mash-up of Dracula with samples from Hawthorne’s greatest hits. We get the spreading consequences of passed-down sin from The Marble Faun and The House of the Seven Gables, the guilty conscience of Dimmesdale and the communal punishment of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, the problematic utopianism of Brook Farm and the rebelliousness of Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance. At first the novel seems to promise merely a mock romance, a reaction against Twilight-style sentimentality. Quickly, however, we enter a far-reaching meditation on history, class, racism, politics, religion, business, and power, involving a wide array of characters and settings. Though nearly 700 pages long, and despite its intricate collage of documents and viewpoints, the story moves with Oates’s characteristic deftness. The Accursed has a striking tone of playful seriousness, the exhilaration that comes from a writer who knows she’s doing a major book and knows she’s doing it well.
The Dracula figure is Axson Mayte. He ruins the reputation of Annabel Slade on the day of her wedding to another man. She is with Mayte for a short time, becomes pregnant, dies in childbirth.
But the facts of Annabel’s seduction are unclear. The gossip-mongers in Princeton see Mayte as a demonic aristocrat who holds a vampire-like sway over women. But did Mayte kidnap Annabel or did she simply decide to walk out on her wedding?
The question becomes more urgent when Annabel returns to her family and gives birth to Mayte’s child. Before the birth, she allegedly makes a confession to her brother about her experiences in Mayte’s home, the surreal Bog Kingdom. The Bog Kingdom is an anti-sexual version of a Gothic estate. It strips the Gothic conventions of their plush eroticism: for Mayte, seduction contains no love or passion but only a cold, bored, exhausted exercise of power. The Bog Kingdom is all about turning everyone to food and waste, with the emphasis on the waste. Annabel quickly learns she is meant to be used up by Mayte and his drinking companions, and then thrown in the marsh with Mayte’s other dead brides. The dying women in Mayte’s harem are held in rooms for horrific medical experiments, or function as broken-down manual laborers. Mayte and his men soon lose interest in raping Annabel and make her a servant-girl. As they eat cannibal sandwiches, “raw beefsteak that leaked blood down their chins,” they jab Annabel’s pregnant belly with their elbows. Then she is exiled to the cellar-crew. She must bail out the sewage from the cesspool, through “the continuous emptying-out of buckets, hour after hour, day following day.”
What are we to make of this bizarre confession? Is this really Annabel’s voice? Her words reach us through at least two degrees of warping — first from her brother, who hates Mayte, and then from van Dyck, who has a complicated relationship to the Bog Kingdom story. Is the story Annabel’s crazed version of a more conventional seduction-and-abandonment, the result of her mind being broken by Mayte’s cruelty? Or do the exaggerations come from her brother, who turns increasingly unstable as the novel goes on? Moreover, what do the exaggerations reveal? Is the vision of the Bog Kingdom the brother’s revenge on Annabel for damaging her family’s reputation? Is the monstrous image of Mayte a puritanical fairy tale, a warning to all Princeton women against following their desires?
Oates won’t allow us any easy answers. Instead, she develops the possibility that Annabel’s confession is a mix, a bastardization of Annabel’s version of the truth along with the versions of her brother, the community, and of course van Dyck. The confession contains odd layers, contradictions that might have survived because the brother and van Dyck have either allowed them to survive or haven’t recognized them or have inserted them later. Many of the novel’s characters have moments when they find themselves saying or thinking something that contradicts what they would usually say or believe. They surrender to unexpected countercurrents, reversed or distorted twists on their self-image. These individual moments of madness — or moments of one strain of madness within other strains of madness — gradually join the larger movements of the Curse through the community. Finally all of Princeton becomes as strange and wildly divided as the story of the Bog Kingdom.
I don’t want to make too much out of it, but the divisions in Oates’s characters might help explain some of the minor lapses in her nonfiction writing and her public statements. She recently tweeted, for instance, that reviewers should try to limit the opinions they express, even though she has spent years producing highly opinionated criticism for The New York Review of Books. Oates has an eye for our paradoxes, the quarrels and inconsistencies we carry around inside us. Possibly she writes so well about our contradictions in part because they’re so strongly present in her personality. I sometimes wonder if she even courts her inconsistencies in order to see them more clearly for her novels and stories. Oates is the opposite of those writers who devote most of their effort to maintaining an artful persona to help market mediocre books. Her public image is slipshod and poorly managed, while her fiction has consumed the bulk of her exceptional energy, has nourished itself on the special ferocity she brings to the design and execution of her work.
3. Birth and Rebirth
Van Dyck tells us Annabel died when her child was born; the baby lived only a few seconds. Van Dyck also reports that gossip turned the baby into a grotesque snake creature, the appropriate offspring for Mayte. Later in the novel, however, we suspect the child has survived. He might even be van Dyck, who was officially born soon after Annabel’s death. Van Dyck’s legal parents hadn’t slept together for years when the wife supposedly became pregnant. In the second half of the novel, the husband goes insane mapping the lines of the Curse and trying to work out if his wife has been unfaithful.
The narrator is lost in the impossibility of knowing whether he’s Annabel’s son. If Annabel gave birth to a demon, is the demon van Dyck? Is the Bog Kingdom his admission of some hidden strain of brutality in him? Or is he satirizing the prejudices the community marshaled to pass judgment on Annabel’s actions? There’s a chance that Annabel or van Dyck’s legal mother — or both of them working together — invented the Bog Kingdom and the story of the baby’s death. They might have used the misogynistic fantasies behind the Curse to conceal the baby’s transfer and perhaps, as the disorienting penultimate chapter hints, to give Annabel and her siblings a chance at being reborn themselves. If Annabel was caught between her original romanticizing of Mayte and Princeton’s equally inaccurate demonizing of him, she might have fed on those who fed on her, might have turned their hungers against them. But in the process, she might have helped the Curse radiate outward, releasing pain and death in ways she couldn’t anticipate. Though she possibly outwits the people who use her, they respond by letting the Curse run wild, as a cover for their most destructive acts, including the rape and murder of at least two young men.
4. Dogs and Dinners
The Accursed is full of deluded leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Teddy Roosevelt to the heads of some of the elite Princeton families. They treat other people’s lives as a banquet, an endless feast of cannibal sandwiches. Yet Oates devotes the bulk of the book to characters who hold only a limited amount of influence, which they’re desperate to protect or expand.
The chapters on the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair link the nightmare of the Bog Kingdom to the complexities of political and social reform. With The Jungle, his famous and still-timely exposé of the food industry, Sinclair forces people like Annabel’s brother to wonder if they’ve literally become cannibals, drinking the blood of workers injured or killed in the factories. Sinclair is both a genuine reformer and a cringing, timid, would-be tyrant. His drive to reveal the injustices of capitalism blinkers him to his neglect of his wife and helps him rationalize his kitsch Nietzcheism. Oates views him satirically, but the satire isn’t a simple matter of declaring him a hypocrite. For Oates, identifying our hypocrisy is less interesting than tracing the eccentric ways our mingled impulses carry us forward. It’s his contradictions — his clashing waves of kindness and insecurity and intolerance — that make Sinclair human. The same can be said of Annabel’s brother, who becomes more vivid for us as he becomes more confused about what he wants.
Jack London appears in the book as an activist version of Mayte: a man who seeks revolution so he can satisfy his appetites without restraint. The Bog Kingdom used to belong to aristocrats; Mayte was a servant in the Kingdom and led a revolt against his masters, so he could take their place and install an even more brutal regime. This is what Jack London wants as well. He worships violence, thinks he is a “natural warrior” who was “born deprived of his heritage.” His destiny, he says, is to “rise up against those who exploit him — and drink their sang impur.”
Upton Sinclair is horrified by London’s bloodlust yet mesmerized by his vitality. London has a rough magnetic presence that the physically delicate and emotionally divided Sinclair lacks. Again like Mayte, London bullies his followers. He demands their abasement along with their admiration. Sinclair watches London give a speech, and sits “gazing up at his hero with the unstinting admiration of a kicked dog for his master, who has left off kicking him for the moment and is being kind to him, capriciously, yet wonderfully.” This recalls Annabel’s delusions in the Bog Kingdom. Even after Mayte has sentenced her to endlessly emptying the cesspool, Annabel fantasizes that he is merely testing her, “hoping to determine if I loved him purely, or was so shallow as to foreswear my vow to him.” Only gradually does she realize that she has chosen to come to the Bog Kingdom, and that she can choose to leave it.
The powerful want us to believe that submitting to their demands is natural, irresistible, right. Sinclair and Annabel, however, end up abandoning their masters and refusing to follow orders. Oates can see the strength in Sinclair’s wavering kindness and delicacy, and the weakness in Mayte’s boorish aggression. Still, the standout quality of The Accursed is the turn and flow of the characters’ personalities, the constant repositioning of their relationships with each other. The characters never harden into a final form we can pass judgment on, and we understand them differently depending on where we are in the book. Like The Golden Bowl and the other Henry James works that Oates references, The Accursed resists moralistic parsing. The novel finds its beauty in its ability to keep all its competing interpretations alive and strong, spinning around each other in humming, electric motion.