Expats are prone to occasional spells of low-level anxiety and paranoia. If it’s not the young French woman in London who tries to iron out her R’s, it’s the Mexican in Barcelona attuned to disdain from Spaniards, or else the unhappy Turkish immigrant who fears the ire of native Germans. The expat is likely to see hazards where none exist, or at least to worry about the specter of prejudice in the air. It’s hard, before you visit a country for the first time, to forecast just how your nationality will define you, but it’s a given that it will somehow, and in ways you won’t be able to predict. Before I head off on a trip or a long stay in Europe, I know a few people will jab me about the U.S. military, but until last year I didn’t know that if you enter an Irish convenience store, ask for a box of matches, stick those matches in your pocket and blithely try to exit the store, your shopkeeper will snap that matches cost money in this country. I know I’ll find a Starbucks in half the cities on Earth, but until recently I didn’t know that I’d find, as I did one day in Dublin, a laundromat that claims to be “American-style.” Their windows are colored red, white, and blue, and their typesets are straight out of Vegas.
If, over time, you manage to get used to living in a foreign culture, you start to revise your thoughts on the quirks of your own country. You see with a distance that can feel like sentimentality at first what it has that no one else can lay claim to, as well as what idiocies place it in the world’s Hall of Shame. You learn, at least if you’re marginally self-aware, how much your own anxieties color your attitude toward home. As a rule, expats project their own feelings onto conflicts, because it can often seem, when daily life is marked by dislocation, that every social misfire is a comment on your place in the world. In part this explains why, for instance, Americans who take pride in their educations get upset when Europeans crack jokes, either in jest or in malice, that touch on their intelligence or the brainpower of their countrymen. They find themselves defending those things about America they like, regardless of how barn-burning their own rhetoric may be at home. The experience teaches them what they love and what they hate, which has the nice effect of honing their sense of themselves. In my case, at least, I can’t study in Europe without getting misty-eyed for my alma mater.
I live in Dublin now. Over here the influence of literature is about as palpable as the weather. Since I arrived, two years ago, I’ve grown more interested in works about American expats, especially those in which the characters are not quite comfortable in their settings. I wanted to see what this literature said about the ways in which expat life in Europe evolved over the course of American history. I also wanted to find works that reveal, intentionally or not, how their authors constructed their own identities as Americans. (In looking for things to read, I stayed away from works about expats who weren’t from the States, in light of a quote by Colum McCann, who once said that when he reads a novel by a non-Irish author that takes place in Ireland, his instinct is to nitpick the novel into the ground. I don’t feel qualified, in short, to analyze non-Americans well, nor do I feel qualified to stray outside Europe, where I’ve lived for many years.) Beyond reading fiction that met my criteria, I read snippets of authors’ biographies, as a way of better understanding how their own views emerge in the text.
I picked out a selection of stories that illustrate three time periods. The first period is the 1840s, when America was still for the most part an agrarian backwater. The second is the 1950s, when Bretton Woods, the Cold War and the rise of our pop culture marked the country’s growth as a hegemon. The third is the 1980s, when Vietnam, Watergate and other calamities still loomed large in the national psyche. I set out to draw a (very) rough sketch of what it meant to be an American in those years. It’s impossible, of course, to sum up the vast breadth of expat literature, but I believe we can still make out, in these stories, how we and a great deal of Europe have interpreted our character as a nation.
At least in my high school, The Scarlet Letter had a maddening ability to bring “Puritan” to the tongues of students who didn’t understand what the term entailed in full. The novel’s ubiquity on reading lists, combined with our generally poor knowledge of British history, led us all to use “Puritan” as a byword for moral stringency. I can’t say this for certain, but I suspect that if your average American student knows one thing about Hawthorne, it’s the extent to which colonial New England haunted him, much like the way in which the Old South held a spectral importance to Faulkner. If you were to read only the books I was assigned in my English classes, you’d likely crown Hawthorne the bard of buttoned-up America, and from there go on to conclude that if he sent his characters abroad, he’d probably saddle them with homegrown guilt and unhappiness. You’d be ready, in other words, to read The Marble Faun, in which Hawthorne sends a group of Americans to Rome, with predictable results.
Three of the four main characters are Americans. All three are sculptors and painters. Miriam, the central figure, suffers from guilt over a crime, one which may or may not have led to her exile from New England. Her baggage attains a physical presence in the form of a mysterious stalker. In four hundred pages, Hawthorne never gives us any details about her crime, and his narrator admits at one point that she may never have committed a crime at all. We’re expected, in the mold of Kafka, to see her guilt not as culpability for an act or a series of acts but instead as an ex post facto justification for her misery. Unlike The Trial, however, The Marble Faun puts the blame for this guilt on the culture in which its protagonist grew up. When Kenyon, one of the Americans, draws a comparison between New England and Rome, he suggests that Rome is a freer place, because although Rome in those days was run by a papal despot, New England forced its residents to get permission for everything they did. It subjected its natives to a bone-deep fear of censure. When Donatello, a young Italian, gets sucked into Miriam’s downfall, we see how degrading this mindset can be. As Miriam is falling apart, Donatello vows to shield her from her stalker, which eventually leads him to kill the stalker in the streets of Rome late at night. Afterwards, Donatello is destroyed, in part because he felt, in the moment before he raised his knife, that Miriam told him to commit murder with a “silent command.” In effect, she transfers her guilt onto Donatello, who subsequently justifies it after the fact. The message isn’t hard to suss out here—this culture is a toxic export.
Despite the overall negativity of this portrayal, the book also presents evidence of singular American virtues. When the narrator describes Hilda, an American painter, he calls her “pretty in our native New England style,” implying that her beauty is a consequence of prudent living. The Americans who form the nucleus of the book include Donatello in their circle because they possess a “republican and artistic simplicity of intercourse.” In one passage, the narrator suggests that Americans, in their failure to preserve the past, indicate an unusual awareness of death and its permanence:
The brief duration of our families, as a hereditary household, renders it next to a certainty that the great-grandchildren will not know their father’s grandfather, and that half a century hence at furthest, the hammer of the auctioneer will thump its knock-down blow against his blockhead, sold at so much for the pound of stone! And it ought to make us shiver, the idea of leaving our features to be a dusty-white ghost among strangers of another generation, who will take our nose between their thumb and fingers (as we have seen men do by Caesar’s, and infallibly break it off if they can do so without detection! “Yes,” said Miriam, who had been revolving some such thoughts as to the above, “it is a good state of mind for mortal man, when he is content to leave no more definite memorial than the grass, which will sprout kindly and speedily over his grave, if we do not make the spot barren with marble.”
In his journals, notes, and letters, Hawthorne echoed these knotty views of his homeland. He wrote in a journal entry about a thirty-five-year-old man, raised on a farm, who gave up the agricultural life to study at a ministry, explaining that, in his ambitions, this man is typical of his country, as he reveals both an urge to improve himself and a strange naiveté in his belief that a farmer has use for an education. In an entry on styles of architecture, Hawthorne writes that American buildings all trace their lineage to the log cabin. He vents about the failure of Americans to buy his novels, arguing with ample misogyny that popular women’s fiction is to blame. Yet though he despaired of his country at times, he also believed its people were plainspoken and honest. In a sketch of a French wine-merchant who came to New England from Denmark, he says the merchant didn’t have the good manners of Americans in the same line of work. In an entry that foreshadows a Hollywood cliché, he paints a visiting Englishman, distinguished by his rudeness, as oblivious to the ease with which he trashes the people around him. Echoing Miriam’s ode to transience in another passage, he describes a large house, one built by a rich man with an eye toward crafting his legacy, that fell apart and collapsed a half-century after it was built. It’s telling that Hawthorne cast his vote for Andrew Jackson in his youth. His gripes never outweighed the force of his populist leanings.
It’s not easy to imagine a writer coming to this conclusion today without at least a hint of irony. Back then, America was a lot more isolationist than its European forebears, which partly explains the innocence Hawthorne perceived. American hegemony was still just a fanciful theory. To someone like Hawthorne, the country retained a particular dewy-eyed purity, no matter the racism and violence of life within its borders. For him, it was still possible to see America as an untested land.
John Cheever’s Collected Stories is one of those books that became so common in the decades after it was released that a lot of people will know what you mean if you simply call it the big orange book. Originally published as a hardcover of Biblical dimensions, the book contains all the stories that made Cheever the Chekhov of the Suburbs: “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio,” “Goodbye, My Brother” and the sad, pessimistic “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” They cemented Westchester as the stomping grounds of Cheever’s imagination. Yet when I read through the book in its entirety a few months ago, I couldn’t maintain my view of the author as parochial. The reason for this is simple: nearly half of his stories are set in Italy, mainly Rome.
Like Hawthorne, Cheever went to Europe in the middle of his career, embarking on a year-long stay in Rome with his family in 1956. Unlike Hawthorne, however, Cheever didn’t get much writing done while abroad. Hawthorne put all his projects on hiatus and kept a series of notebooks about English life; Cheever, in contrast, wrote a total of one story in Rome. The length of his stay, combined with a weariness encapsulated by his remark “Is this all there is?” upon seeing the Tomb of Augustus, suggests that Cheever didn’t get much out of his time in the Eternal City. So it’s odd that he went on to publish a corpus of expat fiction. In the wake of his trip, American expats joined middle-aged couples, fractious rich families, and hopeless alcoholics in the gallery of Cheever archetypes. They let him to play out his upset over the changes of postwar America. To read him now is to sense a bitterness about modern life, coupled with a nostalgia for the country in which he grew up.
Out of all the stories in the big orange book, “The Golden Age” puts Cheever’s Luddite self-loathing most prominently on display. The plot follows a family—a mother, a father and two young boys—on sabbatical in Italy. The father, Seton, is a television writer, one of the first to make his fortunes when the medium took off in the fifties. The locals think he is a poet and refer to him as il poeta. His family is happy and secure. Yet his wealth has made him miserable, because he thinks that television, all in all, is a threat to civilization. As he walks through a village, he spots a television playing inside a bar, inspiring him to dream of the blue glow of the screen transforming Italians into gangsters and juvenile delinquents. He considers apologizing on behalf of America for stocking their restaurants with Coke. In a rowboat with his family, he worries that people on the shore can see how evil he is, alleging that all of them know that he is an “aesthetic criminal.” He admits to lying about his profession to ingratiate himself with the locals. But when a little Italian girl finds out he’s the man behind a famous, international sitcom, she tells him in an offhand way: “We thought, signore, that you were merely a poet.” It seems their disdain is in his head, and the contempt Seton feels is not a reflection of genuine anger but instead a projection of his own rage at the American Century.
Cheever made clear in his own remarks that he cast his lot with Seton. According to his son Benjamin, the author had little good to say about America in the late twentieth-century. While writing Bullet Park and The Wapshot Scandal in the sixties, Malcolm Cowley reportedly warned him: “You’re getting angrier and angrier.” At a symposium run by Esquire in Berkeley, he trashed the coarsening effects of modern American life, even going so far as to declare that “life in the United States in 1960 is Hell.” He thought the decency Hawthorne cherished was dead, imperiled by the twin scourges of the supermarket and TV Guide. In his later stories, the highway, that ubiquitous symbol of free movement, became, as Scott Donaldson argued in an old essay in the VQR, a symbol of industry laying waste to all it touched.
Which isn’t to say that he held a rose-tinted view of the past. Although it’s true that, in the 20s and 30s, America didn’t have quite the level of consumerism he found so offensive, it was also a far more judgmental place. Folded in with the kinder aspects of his youth was a bent towards harsh morality that Hawthorne would have found familiar. In “The Bella Lingua,” a story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1958, this pops up in subtle, unsettling ways. The protagonist, an American in Rome named Wilson Streeter, signs up for Italian lessons with a fellow American, Kate Dresser, who grew up in Iowa at a time which evokes Norman Rockwell. Yet Kate remembers her childhood mainly for the cruelty with which her peers mocked her upturned nose. She has a son, a teenager whose wardrobe consists of leather jackets and Levi’s, who tells her every day that he wants to “go home” to America. Kate informs him testily that his home is in Italy. When her brother, a hardheaded man she calls Uncle George, pays a visit to their Roman villa, he demonstrates unintentionally why Krasbie is not the place for her. The statues around the city, many of which are nude, offend him, as he feels they indicate a people steeped in hopeless decadence and sin.
It’s remarkable how directly this comment ties Cheever back to Hawthorne. Uncle George inadvertently summarizes the worst of American rigidity: the allergy to pleasure, the prejudice, the moral code which banishes people from society for piddling reasons. Uncle George would have tied the stakes if he’d been a colonist in Salem. In part, his outlook explains why, in small towns across America, lone faults to your reputation could doom you for the rest of your life. It’s no coincidence that Cheever hailed from Massachusetts. Like his forebear, he knew how to weaponize the burden of omnipresent shame.
“A Woman Without a Country” aims this knowledge at the cruelty and power of mass media. Revolving around Anne, the heiress to a lumber mill fortune, the story begins a few years after a tabloid mired her in a scandal. After trusting a neighbor who offers to give her a ride home, she gets assaulted by her neighbor in her foyer, at which point her husband comes home and resolves to divorce her for infidelity. On trial for custody of her children, she claims the humidity impaired her senses, setting off a firestorm of ridicule in tabloids across the country. She gets away from the mockery by leaving America for Europe. Ensconced on the continent, she decides that her homeland is a miserable, savage place. But when she meets a businessman from Philly whose impeccable manners appear to absolve her country, she grows so homesick that she books a flight to New York. When she gets there, however, she immediately hears a janitor in the terminal singing “Humid Isabella,” a song written by a tabloid reporter years before to capitalize on her notoriety. It’s proof to her that America is tainted, and that as long her peers have functioning memories, it will never again be home. She books a flight to Rome and resumes her status as an exile.
Is it even necessary to compare her to Hester Prynne? The parallels are too eerie to ignore. Over three centuries after The Scarlet Letter was set, and a hundred years after it was published, “A Woman Without a Country” establishes in poignant fashion that yes, that harshness is still there. In spite of the changes wrought by shopping malls, highways and TV shows, our own breed of strictness lived on, and Cheever wouldn’t let us forget it.
It’s not hard to see why writer who lived through the Cold War might think the US was a kinder place when he was young. But for readers today, the majority of whom have spent their whole lives in the world he detested, Cheever comes off as a crank. You don’t have to classify him as one of David Foster Wallace’s Great Narcissists to think a person who railed against the evils of the supermarket didn’t have the strongest grasp of the ways in which things had improved. His biases, which only multiplied as he aged, impaired his ability to see the world he painted so well.
The same can’t be said of the novelist Lynne Tillman, whose fiction reveals a clear fluency with modern life. In Motion Sickness, a novel which follows a conspicuously unnamed narrator on a long trip through Europe, her characters are savvy to the world as they see it, unlike the harried everymen of Cheever’s catalogues of horrors. Her protagonist makes scores of friends as she moves from country to country. Her circles, which include people from all over the world, talk politics as easily as they talk about the weather. Since the novel was published in 1989, the setting is the lead-up to the Soviet collapse, though none of the characters could have known it at the time. The book has an atmosphere of controlled anomie, in which most people are resigned to the permanence of a capitalist world order.
It’s in Motion Sickness that I saw the most vivid reflections of what I’ve felt when I go abroad. In cities across Europe, the narrator finds herself hungry for American media, which provides her with a surrogate comfort zone. In a coffee shop in the Netherlands, she reads a novel about Hollywood and finds herself wishing a television was playing in the background. She tells us that “almost anything” sparks an urge to go to the movies. Every day, she reads the Times or the Herald Tribune, though she admits that once in a while, she buys a local paper, “simply to appear to be trying.” She resorts to monosyllabic terms to describe herself while reading Mickey Spillane. She compares the glass in which she drinks tea to Dolly Parton or Mae West, noting simply that her Dutch hotel manager wasn’t likely to make this analogy. For her, the saturation of media is a fact of life, one neither to fear nor to view as much of a blessing. It is, instead, a state of being to observe, without feeling.
The narrator also runs into a character who all expats meet at some point. In London, she befriends a fellow American, Jessica, who neatly fits a stereotype I call the bourgeois exile. Jessica left the States during the Vietnam War as a form of political protest. She preaches the value of Buddhism and speaks in a torrent of aphorisms. In the States, she had a comfortable life—her parents can trace their ancestry back to the revolution—and it’s obvious she has enough money to live wherever she wants. Her unmistakable privilege lends her a campy quality. When she speaks, you get the impression that London is part of her style, that it exists in her view mainly to prove her wealth and considerable good taste.
Jessica takes pains to distance herself from America. Yet when the narrator talks with her about the details of her past, she picks up a peculiar and distinctly American mindset. Jessica grew up in the Midwest, in tiny towns isolated from much of the world, and her family developed their own breed of cloistered weirdness. The gigantic skies, combined with the religious bent in her community, inculcated “a certain kind of American psychosis” in Jessica. This manifests in her dual belief in Buddhism and Christian angels. Her oddness is akin to the madness that plagues Hawthorne’s New England. At one point, Jessica says that, in her youth, she even went through her own Protestant awakening.
Wherever she goes, the narrator suspects that her own psychosis is evident. She worries that a man who fails to introduce himself to her does so because she is American and thus will invariably make the first move. In a cafe in London, she enunciates her order and sees half of the patrons glare at her, their faces mirroring their deep-rooted antipathy to Americans. She braces for the possibility of being attacked for her nationality. Yet when she meets a person who actually does have harsh things to say about her country, she barely reacts. In Barcelona, her lover informs her that his neighborhood is being modernized—but in a good way, not like what you see in New York, where unscrupulous landlords toss the poor and the infirm onto the streets. The narrator, upon hearing this, says nothing, instead pondering whether she can impress him with her scant knowledge of German and French.
I felt a great kinship with the narrator while reading this scene. Regardless of what else may define him or her, the expat is a canvas of hopes, prejudices and hatreds, on which world citizens of all stripes project their ideas about foreign cultures. The narrator of Motion Sickness is aware that she is always an emissary. To some extent, the rest of the world will always see you as they see your country, and you will see yourself, in a way you never did at home, as a child of the land that raised you. There isn’t a place on Earth where you won’t stand for a set of values.
I remember a story a friend told me about a semester he spent in Kenya. On the way home, he saw a billboard for a new Bourne movie looming over the freeway in Nairobi. In Paris, he saw the exact same billboard while making his connection, and when he finally got back to San Francisco a day later, he saw it again in the baggage claim. We talked about how strange it was to know our country had made that happen. “Hollywood gets around, doesn’t it?,” he said.
Image credit: Pexels/Francesco Ungaro.
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.