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Monday, May 27, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE ACCURSED” by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate /Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99)


Gentle Reader, imagine my shame and embarrassment when I began reading The Accursed, latest tome by the famous book-writing machine which goes by the name of Joyce Carol Oates.


Here it was, a fat paperback of some 667 pages, and with a cover showing a snow-white female chin above a snow-white lace collar, with blood dribbling from the crimson lips; and with the title The Accursed printed in bold blood-red Gothic type. And above the title, at least on the copy that I had, the slogan “The sins of the fathers. The souls of the innocent”.

I scarcely dared let anyone see what I was reading, as it looked so like airport-lounge Gothic or a variant of the Twilight series that is marketed to younger teenage girls.

And, Gentle Reader, much of the novel delivered exactly what the cover promised its more innocent purchasers. It does indeed include a Curse – also known as the Crosswicks Curse or The Unspeakable – which descends upon a small community and causes much mayhem and many scenes of extreme horror or violence. These include the ghost of a recently deceased young girl coming back to haunt members of her family! A bride abducted from her wedding by a Phantom Bridegroom and spirited away to a demon kingdom (the “Bog Kingdom”) ruled by a Demon Prince! A shape-shifter who is now the Phantom Bridegroom; and now Sherlock Holmes inciting a dotty professor to commit murder; and now a suave European count of evil intent! Girls in a ladies’ seminary who have hysterics at the sight of demon snakes! And a husband who, amid blood-soaked bed-sheets, goes berserk and murders his wife with an electric fan! And a homosexual vampire, feasting on university students! And a father who is just prevented from murdering an infant after demon voices have spoken to him! And to add to the Gothic tone, an idiot boy who seems imbecilic but has access to the Demon Kingdom and to all the occult matters that those elder and wiser cannot fathom.

So very Gothic.

Like many genuine Gothic novels (you can go back to the days of James Hogg, Anne Radcliffe and E.T.A.Hoffmann for this one), The Accursed purports to be an account of real events as “edited” by an historian - in this case, one M.W.van Dyck, looking back on the demonic visitations from eighty years later.

But here is the twist. The whole tale unfolds at Princeton University in homely, un-demonic New Jersey, in 1905-06. Those characters who are most afflicted by the Curse are the fictitious children of the fictitious Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade. The young woman spirited away by a Demon Bridegroom is the Reverend Slade’s daughter Annabel Slade, who was about to make a fashionable marriage to the dashing southern Lieutenant Dabney Bayard. Alongside these fictitious characters, however, The Accursed has many extended portraits of real historical figures. Former US President Grover Cleveland. Future US President (and president of Princeton University) Woodrow Wilson. And journalist, novelist and Socialist muckraker Upton Sinclair. And blowhard novelist Jack London. And others too numinous to mention.

There are passages that could be regarded as straight reportage, especially when the novel considers the manners and attitudes of the Princeton student body, thus:

“There was a spirit of forced camaraderie among the Princeton boys – or as they wished to think of themselves, young men. As if nothing mattered so much as one another: to be respected, to be liked, to be admired, to be ‘popular’. Grades scarcely mattered – if you studied you were mocked as a poler. A gentleman had no need of a grade beyond “C” – for a gentleman was not going to make his living by his wits, surely. And so you joined a club, or two clubs; or three. You went out for sports as others did, in an affable herd….” (p.83)

Yet for all its many documentary moments, there is no point in trying to unpick this novel in purely historical terms. It simply isn’t an historical novel in any conventional sense, but a lurid fantasia on historical themes. Therefore one cannot cry “Foul!” at the sight of any anachronisms.

But what exactly is Joyce Carol Oates doing with this melding of Gothic excess and historical verisimilitude?

Predictably, the whole thing is a postmodern exercise, self-referential and a veritable Chinese box of unreliable narrators. Our historian M.W.van Dyck, writing in 1986, is a stuffy, pompous, pedantic old man, endlessly passing judgements on characters and events (often in footnotes) in ways that show him to be snobbish, mildly racist and quite out of touch with his own times. Annabel Slade’s diary of her abduction (especially pp.264 ff.) is pure Gothick pastiche. By contrast the quoted diary of one Adelaide McLean Burr, a hypochondriac, neurotic campus wife, is a collection of period prejudices and fads - she follows Theosophy, hates trade unions and the working classes, and yet blithely rejoices in the revolutionary anarchist theories of Bakhunin as if they are the latest drawing-room fashion.

So, we have to conclude, part of Joyce Carol Oates’ purpose is purely stylistic. She is indulging the fun of writing in different styles.

But you cannot read this fat volume without seeing much of its Gothic as metaphorical. Unless you want to take the hauntings, the vampirism and the demons at face value (and you’re allowed to do that if you want), its hard to see them as anything other than symbols of what ailed and haunted America’s intellectual life a century ago – the nasty things in the USA’s historical DNA. Those who are “The Accursed” may be Americans who have this heritage.

The portraits of America’s leaders are unflattering. Grover Cleveland is an obese fool, who gets stuck in a window frame when trying to pursue the ghost of his daughter. When he turns up late in the novel, hosting a White House dinner, President Teddy Roosevelt is a gluttonous, boastful bellower. More central to the action is the pompous, hypersensitive, nerve-strained Woodrow Wilson, who takes a whole pharmacopeia of drugs to soothe his nerves and who sees conspiracies against himself everywhere. He is shriekingly as odds with another academic administrator, Dean Andrew West, over precedence and the building of a graduate school.

Up in New Jersey, Princeton is still a bastion of prim southern Presbyterian intellectuals with a high sense of their own moral worth. Yet, as Oates depicts them, they are really a perverse lot. They are profoundly racist. They do not like that vulgar Ku Klux Klan, but in the privacy of their own homes, they secretly approve when they hear of a nearby lynching. It keeps the Negroes in their proper place, after all. They have a neurotic fear of “race-mixing”. In one early scene, Woodrow Wilson conspires to have a member of staff dismissed when it is suspected that he may have some black ancestry. They barely tolerate Jews. Only a few are allowed on campus, and the dashing Lieutenant Bayard makes free with the anti-Semitic remarks as he harasses one Jewish student. The prospect of women’s suffrage is unsettling and generally disapproved of, but the college administrators cannot come up with logical arguments against it. As for the new wave of immigrants at that time entering America from Southern Europe, they arouse all the Protestant mandarins’ latent anti-Catholic bigotry. In one scene Woodrow Wilson, slightly unhinged by his drugs and his paranoia, gives a semi-coherent public speech which turns into jokes about “darkies” and a rave against “the enemies of Protestantism” flooding into the country (pp.337-338).

So often as I read this novel, I found myself de-coding the Gothic bits to see how they played shorn of the supernatural. Take the melodramatic moment where Annabel Slade, escaped from the Demon King’s “Bog Kingdom”, dies in childbirth. Panicked rumours fly about that she has given birth to something monstrous – which would fit in with her having mated with a demon. But the rumours also echo the fear of whites having children with blacks. It occurred to me that the hysteria attendant upon Annabel’s childbirth was no more than what this inward-turning, snobbish, elite, self-satisfied white university community would express if one of its members gave birth to a black child.

And is the demonic “Bog Kingdom” code for mandarin fears of the demotic, uncouth working class?

Or, in another reading, is it code for the repression of healthy sexual urges?

As in much Gothic fiction, the extreme action, violence and hysteria have a distinct sexual edge. Princeton in 1906 is an all-male institution and something of a sexual hothouse. More than once, Oates implies that repressed sexual urges are one cause of the profound anxieties, neuroses and (possibly) hallucinations that her characters experience. We see this in her description (pp.228-229) of the young woman “Willy” (Wilhelmena) Burr, whose corseted body is unnaturally restrained in its striving to break with social custom. Quite late in the novel (pp.476-482), it is clear that while “The Unspeakable” may be a demonic curse, it also refers to homosexual activity among students, which finds an outlet in their rough “hazing” and casual violence. As for the virginal girls at the ladies’ seminary having hysterics at the sight of demon snakes – I think the Freudian imagery is pretty damned obvious.

In the midst of all this snobbery and sexual repression, there is one major character who seems at first a moral counter-balance to Princeton. This is the young Upton Sinclair, fresh from having produced his famous expose of the meat-packing industry The Jungle, and writing at a feverish pace in his denunciations of Capitalism and his hailing of the immanent Socialist dawn. Certainly he is depicted with more sympathy than most characters in this novel. Yet even Sinclair is blind to many of the things under his nose. Take this introduction to the conditions of his marriage:

“So devoted was Upton Sinclair to his work, he’d resolved never to spend less than twelve hours a day at his desk, with the unfortunate but necessary consequence that [his wife] Meta was obliged to milk the cow, that had come with the farmhouse; and deal with a flock of mangy chickens, that yielded very few eggs; and attempt to protect the meagre fruits of a small orchard and garden from armies of worms, insects, and slugs that infested them in overlapping shifts. Upton sympathised with Meta’s frustration, as with her exhaustion; but he did not condone her frequently voiced despair – if they were to one day help found a Socialist colony, it would be in a rural environment, and so the present farm work was excellent training.” (p.149)

Of course there is heavy irony here – the idealistic Socialist cannot recognise his own exploitation of his wife – and Joyce Carol Oates rewards Upton Sinclair by having him, too, suffer from hallucinations, in his case about his wife committing adultery. For all the laudable aspect of his moral outrage at society, Sinclair is still seen as a man of his age. He makes many pungent and accurate observations on the Princeton scene, but his na├»ve vision of the coming Socialist revolution is as ungrounded in reality as the mandarins’ racist fantasies. I was beginning to droop from this over-long, over-complex, over-clever congeries of Gothic and Historical when I was revived by the bravura chapter (pp.487-529) in which Upton Sinclair meets his young hero Jack London. Sinclair rapidly discovers that London’s “Socialism” is a thin mask for profoundly racist Nietszchean fantasies about Nordic supermen. [See the index at right for my take on London’s The People of the Abyss, one of the books which Upton Sinclair admires in this novel]. The sad truth appears to be that even those who wished to amend a corrupt and privileged society were not necessarily on the path to building something better.

There is one other theme that strikes me in The Accursed. Having presented a thoroughly unlikable university community, repressed, neurotic, racist and snobbish, Joyce Carol Oates implies that its salvation might come from its youth and from those people who consciously ignore its shibboleths. “Willy” (Wilhelmena) defies her family to pursue a modest but unladylike career. Josiah Slade, the brother of the abducted bride, at first sets out to get revenge on the man who abducted her, but is converted to a hunger for the real betterment of society. In this hopeful schema, the idiot boy Todd proves to be the salvation of the community when he lifts the curse by defeating the Demon King of the Bog Kingdom at a game of draughts. Very much in the American grain (think of innocent heroes like Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield), Oates comes close to seeing virtue only in callowness. And yet there is irony here too, for the novel’s innocents do not all end well. And from the perspective of one century later, we are aware that their social hopes did not all turn out as they expected.

I refrain from analysing the novel’s conclusion, where Oates glibly stands on its head much of the demonic imagery she has been deploying, and suggests that God may be at fault rather than the demons. Not only is it a profoundly unsatisfying wrap-up, but I’d be accused of offering “spoilers” if I went into too much detail.

After my ramblings about the contents of the book, it is time to front up with an opinion on it. Let me do this elliptically. Just last week, I was commenting on Stephanie Johnson’s novel The Writing Class, in which the creative writing tutor Gareth reflects bitterly:

“People write too much these days, on and on and on. You wanted to tell some of them to shut up. Look at Joyce Carol Oates with her fifty novels and God knows how many other works …” (p.226)

This is very much the reputation that the 75-year-old Joyce Carol Oates now has – the woman who has been cranking out at least a book a year since the early 1960s. Understandably, many of them have been highly praised, she is a respected part of the American literary establishment and she has for the best part of thirty years been teaching at Princeton, forsooth. But the very abundance of her work always gives reviewers an opening to tell her that she should slow down, write more carefully, concentrate on her craft and perhaps stop repeating herself. For the record, she had already written three or four Gothic novels before this one, and apparently she first drafted The Accursed in the 1980s when she had just joined the faculty at Princeton.

I salute and applaud Joyce Carol Oates’ wit and intellectual vigour. I do not wish to join the ranks of those who belittle her simply for having written so much. And yet I did wish that she had sculpted this outpouring more carefully. The Accursed has passages of great insight and acute historical judgement. Its Gothic sensationalism is fun up to a point. And yet it also wanders all over the compass, has too many characters and badly outstays its welcome. At 300 or even 400 pages, its wedding of demons and intellectuals could have been bracing. At 667 pages you do indeed want to tell the lady to shut up and you begin to wonder whether she has merely hit on a more up-market version of one of those tiresome mash-ups, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its ilk.

In the end, game-playing of this bulk and length is oppressive.

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