Reviewed by Lawrence Wayne Markert
LAWRENCE WAYNE MARKERT is an English professor at Hollins University
Last year, when Joyce Carol Oates’ previous novel “Mudwoman” appeared, Hermione Lee, the British literary critic, stated in the New York Review of Books that the Oates literary landscape, which is superhumanly abundant and often correspondingly populated, becomes cluttered with “murk and junk, dark water, mud, trash and detritus and debris, desolate woods, rickety bridges over ugly rivers, rust and barbed wire.”
Oates’ new novel, “The Accursed,” literally resurrecting her fascination with the gothic genre, follows suit.
A list of Oates’ publications would take up more space than allotted to this review. Her novels, not including nonfiction and literary criticism, range from “With Shuddering Fall” (1964), an exploration of the nature of innocence in the mythical and fictional Eden County of upstate New York, through “Bellefleur” (1980), an overtly gothic novel (and ancestor to “The Accursed”), to “Blonde,” a fictional exploration of the troubled and cursed life of Marilyn Monroe, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” (2007), and “Mudwoman”.
“The Accursed” takes place within a time frame of 14 months in Princeton, N.J., from 1905 through 1906, focusing on white, Anglo-Saxon privilege and the grandchildren of Winslow Slade, the family patriarch.
The gothic, which Oates returns to in this work, has remained at the heart of much of her work and temperament. She knows well the geography of both place and genre, for she has taught creative writing at Princeton since 1978 and actually began writing “The Accursed” in 1984 but abandoned the project until now. The book includes a 1905-06 map of Princeton so that readers can trace the character’s steps.
We quickly learn that the novel is narrated by M.W. van Dyck II, a “historian” who claims to have access to new and verifiable information about a series of notorious incidents, precipitated by the Slade family curse, which occurred in the early years of the 20th century in Princeton.
The “date” of the telling, 1984, corresponds to the date of Oates’ original manuscript. But this narration raises doubts; van Dyck seems more like Lockwood in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” a clueless innocent. His actual heritage may not be so guiltless, however. The events he describes as a descendant of some of those who experienced the curse include the traditional apparatus of gothic fiction, the abduction and sexual exploitation of innocent maidens, murders, demons and even vampires.
As expected, Oates provides other complexities. “The Accursed” cleverly and entertainingly mixes actual history with a fictional account. The novel incorporates the real inhabitants of Princeton in 1905, a paranoid and sickly Woodrow Wilson, future president of the United States and then president of Princeton; Upton Sinclair, the novelist and social activist working on his new novel to follow on the budding success of “The Jungle,” published in 1906; Jack London, novelist and socialist; and Grover Cleveland, previous president of the United States.
The mix of history and fact allows Oates to focus on the hypocrisy that defines the United States as the 20th century unfolds. As she mentioned in a recent interview, the novel deals with a blind and sexist society. The characters engage in belief without examination and the demons, then, represent repressed desires. The tinge of “mud” here too serves as a central image or metaphor as it does explicitly in “Mudwoman.”
Of course, we cannot help but note that some of the same hypocrisy may apply to our 21st century as it unfolds. The latter may be part of what motivated Oates to return to this project.
Structuring the novel as a history also gives Oates an opportunity to experiment with various forms of narration, again somewhat in the same tradition as Emily Bronte’s great gothic novel. Journals lead to second-party narrations, lead to sermons, letters, and other forms of storytelling. The diversity of voices and formats may put off some readers, but the design serves well the overall atmosphere of the tale.
Oates explains to a degree her intentions at the end of the novel, just above the “Acknowledgements” page: “The truths of Fiction reside in metaphor; but metaphor here is generated by History.” The capitalization is hers.