Joyce Carol Oates was born in the county I grew up in (Niagara County, New York), and she spent her early life very close to the area where I would spend mine. Recently, I picked up my first Oates novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, and discovered that Oates’ interests were quite similar to my own. At times, it seemed as if she were describing my own family. (That’s not to say that anyone in my family has been the victim of rape, as Marianne Mulvaney is; it’s just that Oates’s preoccupations—race, sex, violence, institutional behavior—struck a chord for me.)
In some ways, Oates’s new novel, The Accursed, is quite different from We Were the Mulvaneys. It is set over 100 years ago, in the affluent town of Princeton, whereas We Were the Mulvaneys occurs in the more recent past, in a less glittery Western New York town. Also, The Accursed makes liberal use of supernatural elements. It’s like a modern gothic novel, with ghosts, vampires, and shape-shifters.
Like Wilkie Collins, the king of the gothic novel, Oates depends on many, many voices to tell her story. Some parts of the story are bits of characters’ diaries. Other parts are drafts of a sermon. Still other parts are letters from one character to another. By contrast, We Were the Mulvaneys is a more conventional tale, with just one narrator throughout.
Still, We Were the Mulvaneys has a good deal in common with The Accursed. Both novels are interested in the effects of institutional corruption on individual lives. Both focus on bonds between brothers and sisters, and both have multiple parts. In each novel, Part One ends with an act of violence directed against a female protagonist. And, in each novel, Part Two concerns the efforts of the protagonist’s brother to address the evils of Part One.
Clearly, Oates has spent a significant part of her career thinking about family ties, injustice, and oppression.
The oppressors in The Accursed are members of the American ruling class. It’s 1905, and rich white men are gleefully ruining many American lives. Women cannot vote; mixed-race scholars are banned from Princeton; and the President of the United States is too shallow to pay attention to child-labor-law violations.
Against this backdrop, one affluent Princeton clan, the Slade family, tries to get by. The patriarch, Winslow Slade, has four wealthy grandchildren, Josiah, Annabel, Oriana, and Todd. One would think that these four would have easy lives, but suddenly, all of America’s evils seem to converge on the Slade family. It no longer matters that the Slades have abundant wealth. A greedy shape-shifter abducts Annabel and takes her to hell, a “Bog Kingdom”, where she is impregnated and left to die. Meanwhile, Todd seems to become possessed, and he may or may not be responsible for throwing his sister to her death from a tall building. Lastly, Josiah tries desperately to avenge Annabel’s death, and he notices that his mind has been overtaken by chattering, demonic voices.
Soon, all of Princeton is overwhelmed by the mysterious curse that is preying on the Slade family.
There’s a good deal of madness in this novel. Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University, is struggling to keep it together. He has almost constant physical and psychic ailments, and he takes an array of drugs to remain calm. He is bizarrely preoccupied with eating clubs at Princeton; he wants them abolished, because they did not welcome him when he was an undergrad. It’s odd that he gets so worked up about a minor form of elitism, because, in some areas of life, he is an appalling elitist. He dismisses a distant relative from the Princeton University staff because this relative is of mixed-race origin. He, Woodrow, regularly makes sexist and racist comments. He is not the decent guy you may have imagined when you were reading your grade school history textbook.
Meanwhile, Upton Sinclair lurks on the fringes of the Princeton campus. Upton has just published The Jungle, which is sweeping the nation. It’s Sinclair’s great hope to inspire a socialist revolution throughout America, but of course readers miss the point of his exposé. As Sinclair famously remarked, he “aimed for the nation’s heart” but hit the nation’s stomach.
Like Wilson, Sinclair has a rather myopic view of the world. He can wring his hands about the oppression of poor people, yet he fails to notice how shabbily he is treating his own wife. Over and over, Oates takes pleasure in pointing out hypocrisies. Upton’s idol, Jack London, claims to be a socialist hero, but actually believes that some social classes are inherently better than others. Teddy Roosevelt says he is a fan of Sinclair’s writing, but rejects the muckraking spirit when child laborers demand a better life.
You’ll also meet Sam Clemens in Oates’s novel; Clemens is approaching old age, and he constantly mourns the loss of his daughter. He smokes 40 cigars per day and drowns in his own cynicism. It’s hinted that Clemens may be slowly, deliberately killing himself.
Elsewhere, other moments of lunacy are chronicled. A female invalid keeps a secret diary about her husband’s descent into carnal, beastly behavior. One spouse will eventually feed the other to the blades of an electric fan. In another marriage, a husband goes insane and attacks his innocent wife (whom he suspects of adultery). And in still another corner of Princeton, a professor begins to imagine that he has direct access to Sherlock Holmes—and, because of Holmes’s instigation, this professor tries to murder his wife and child with a hot poker.
Oates’s main idea is that all of America has become hysterically ill. If a country is spiritually unhealthy, then no citizen of that country can be entirely well. Oates has Upton Sinclair articulate this notion near the climax of this bricklike tome.
Flying through the pages, I admired Oates’s energy and curiosity. Famously, Oates has written more novels than just about all of her literary contemporaries; she tends to produce one book per year. (You can sense Oates winking when she describes Upton Sinclair’s fifteen-hour work marathons. Sinclair hopes to be an American Balzac, and Balzac famously killed himself by drinking too much coffee and working non-stop. Oates might be Balzac’s heir.) If you read either Mulvaneys or The Accursed, you will get caught up in Oates’s breathless storytelling. It’s as if she has grabbed you by the collar and pinned you down, and she is whispering urgently in your ear.
Also, it’s fun to explore the lives of formerly spotless American icons. I had thought that Woodrow Wilson was a decent man; in fact, my history teachers in school focused solely on Wilson’s attempts to make the world safe for democracy. But of course Wilson was a product of his time; he was rather narrow-minded and cruel. (You get the same pleasure from this novel that you might get from watching an episode of Mad Men; you can think, ah, I know so much more than those fools did just a few decades ago.) Oates’s juicy tidbits about Teddy Roosevelt’s barbarous behavior, Jack London’s endless drinking, and Grover Cleveland’s scandalous May/December marriage will enthrall any history buff.
On the other hand, I have some complaints. Scenes drag on for much, much too long. It’s as if Oates felt compelled to make simple points ten or 20 times before moving on to a new chapter. And the range of behavior she describes is sadly limited. The formula is: Take an American saint, expose this saint’s ugly underbelly, and then expose that same underbelly again and again for 12 or 15 pages. There’s no need for this habit. Oates could simply slow down, refrain from publishing for a couple of years, and push herself to notice other aspects of human behavior. Her writing here seems compulsive. It’s often entertaining, but it’s possibly not the best she is capable of.
I do not mean to suggest that The Accursed is negligible. I heartily enjoyed my reading experience. It’s just that Oates seems caught in a hamster wheel, cranking out violent, predictable novels. Given her intelligence and her imaginative powers, it’s a shame that she refuses to set loftier goals.