(I stole this photo from Liz’s instagram. Thanks Liz!)
The Accursed (which I continually, continually call Alleged – even in this post, which I had to go back and fix), by Joyce Carol Oates is an undertaking. I knew it when I put it on the list and that is why I have three amazing readers reviewing this time around. I came across this book first because I really wanted to read a JCO book and I couldn’t believe I NEVER HAD. I mean, one of the most prolific literary writers of our TIME and I haven’t read anything by her? Ridiculous. Full disclosure: I still haven’t read anything by her, but I will. There just aren’t enough hours in the day at the moment. The second reason I wanted to put this particular book on this list was Stephen King’s review of it in the NYTimes. If anthing, this book will be a trip. AmIRight reviewers? We shall see…
This is Kristin. She is a poet and an amazing person overall. I find her book recommendations and her thoughts on literature in general to be so well thought out. I would follow her reading suggestions into a dark literary forest is all I’m saying.
This is Liz! We went to the same high school! You can check out her adventures, her cocktail recipes and travels at Liz Takes The World. She is going to Mexico City in July and I am jealous.
Victoria’s review of this book made me so excited. As someone who has not yet read it (Book list fail #2!), I am very much hoping that it is amazing. Even if it is giant. Even if it might be a little over my head at times. I’m still hoping to walk away going WOW. Her review made me WOW. So let’s get to it!
Kristin: When I saw that I’d been assigned The Accursed, I was really excited. I’d never read any Joyce Carol Oates before, but I’d been meaning to pick something of hers up for years, so it seemed to be a fortuitous assignment. I didn’t know anything at all about the book, but I did a quick google and found Stephen King’s review on the NYT. I only read the first paragraph, because after seeing his warning, I didn’t want to have any influence or spoilers, but the review did whet my appetite a bit, because it noted, “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it. I wish I could tell you more.” It’s been ages and ages since I finished a Gothic novel, so I was really stoked. I also didn’t realize what a challenge it would be because I was reading it on my tablet, and that only gives page numbers for the selection, not for the book as a whole, so I had no idea how long and dense it would be.
Victoria: I was excited to give this one a try because I’d never read any JCO before, despite her sort of being a staple of contemporary literary fiction. I definitely also saw it as a challenge. Though I usually read digitally, I ordered this one in paperback so I could give it a close read with pencil in hand, and when I first pulled it out of the box… dude, this book is a behemoth.
Liz: I had never read any Joyce Carol Oates before but was following her on twitter for some time. Her insights were occasionally interesting but mostly I found them overly pretentious so going into this book I was curious to see how I would respond to her actual writing.
Kristin: It’s a little difficult to give a real plot synopsis without giving anything away, but I would say that The Accursed tells the story of a year in the life of Princeton, NJ’s wealthy elite. This year, 1905-1906, is the year in which a Curse hits the town, focusing most especially on the Slade family, one of the wealthiest families around. What follows includes domestic shame, murder, and demons. And at the same time, it may all just be a case of mass hysteria. The book is written by a historian, who acts as a character in the book as well, so you’re never quite sure if you can depend on your narrator, either.
Victoria: I fully believe it to be impossible to provide a “brief synopsis” of this one–there is SO! MUCH! going on–but I’ll give it a shot. The setting is Princeton, New Jersey, in 1905-06, and the story involves many of the prominent families that live there. One could argue that the primary plot centers around Annabel Slade, who’s engaged to Dabney Bayard but leaves him at (or is she abducted from?) the altar just seconds after they’re pronounced man and wife. Her brother Josiah spends much of the novel being consumed by his search for her. Other elements of the plot include appearances of historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, who at this time is president of Princeton University; Grover Cleveland and Upton Sinclair, who also live in Princeton; Teddy Roosevelt, the current U.S. president; and Jack London, who’s reaping the success of his Call of the Wild.
The overarching story is really about, I think (and I’m not a literature professor or anything!), the way that secrets can destroy a family, the way that evil acts can destroy a society, the interconnectedness of things, the way our perceptions write our stories… maybe I’m getting too deep here.
Liz: In early twentieth century Princeton, a stranger has swept into town and managed to make quite a stir among the old money and academic families of this well heeled town. The town has come under a curse, first unnoticed and then impossible to ignore.
What I wish I could say is simply this: “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it. I wish I could tell you more.” – Stephen King
Kristin: The most interesting of the recurring themes I saw was that of the role of historian. The narrator is also a character in the book (not unlike Steinbeck’s own role in East of Eden), and as a result, it can be difficult to trust the narration. It doesn’t help that he’s also bigoted, which shines through at various moments throughout the book. This set up also allows Oates to play with a variety of different writing styles throughout the book, and she includes journal entries, letters, and a sermon alongside the main narration of the book. These short interludes help make the dense book a little more palatable.
I also found the sections about fictional characters (like the Slades or the narrator) to be the most interesting, but the story also features several historical characters, like Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair, and I found their inclusion to be compelling. A book that takes a slightly similar approach to fictionalizing historical characters is The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie, and I have to say I found that one to be a far faster read, so you may want to check that out if you also like the approach.
Victoria: This novel’s subtitle could be “The Book of Recurring Themes.” Racism and sexism, unspeakable things and demons, religion and theosophy, the bourgeoisie and socialism… One thing that I found particularly interesting was the theme of human fallibility. So much of the novel centers around this idea of demons, but as a reader not believing in demons, you’re trying to look at each character and see what elements are causing these weird visions, beliefs, voices… parallel to this, the whole story is being told by a narrator who purports to be an (amateur) historian and who actually plays a role in the story. I found myself constantly questioning the narrator’s reliability, which just made reading the whole story more interesting and complicated.
(Photo Credit: The NYT)
Liz: Oates’ choice to narrate the story via an amateur historian was repeatedly jarring. The story seemed half written as a typical fiction novel and half as a mock historic report. I kept feeling like I was missing some aspect of the plot structure that would allow me to “get it”. Perhaps that’s the case but I never got it to click.
Kristin: I do think that Oates succeeded in telling the story. Though it dragged on (and on) at points for me, I wasn’t left with any lingering questions, except those that I think we’re always meant to be asking after reading a good and ambiguous novel: questions about truth and what it means to tell a story.
Victoria: I was left wondering EVERYTHING, but I don’t think that means JCO didn’t succeed in telling the story. I felt like this was one of those stories in which the questions are more important (and perhaps more interesting?) than the answers.
Liz: The meticulous research on the historical characters (President Cleveland, future President Wilson, old money Princeton families) was clear. I’m nosy and like to know those juicy bits about long dead people. In that sense, I think Oates succeeded in making potentially dry characters robust.
Kristin: I have to say that this was probably what I disliked most about the novel: I almost never felt surprised. I think that to follow a formula, like that of a Gothic novel, you’ll be sacrificing at least a bit of unpredictability, but in this case, it felt as if I could predict the entire book after reading the first 100 or so pages. One lovely and surprising moment, however, was seeing Mark Twain come into the story for a bit.
Victoria: I guess I was most surprised by the supernatural and absolutely absurd (I don’t mean that in a negative way) elements of the story. Based on the perceptions I had about JCO before I began this novel, I wouldn’t have expected that there would be so much of that.
Liz: How slow it was! When I was assigned this book I was extremely intrigued by the plot outline: WASPs, curses, old time-y goodness, seemed like a winning combo. I read mostly on the bus in 20-30 minute chunks. I find the practice of unplugging and getting into books very relaxing. Unfortunately, this set up isn’t conducive to slow simmering plots or characters with heavily detailed backstory. It reminds me of Hemingway’s advice: don’t include everything. My reading style may have contributed to my difficulty in connecting to the book.
Kristin: I am glad to have read it, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it very much. It felt rather more like a chore than I usually like reading to feel. I do think there are some good readers for this book – people who love Gothic novels or who have never read one, people who love detailed descriptions and getting lost in a new world – but I’m not sure I fit that target audience quite correctly. I felt the prose was a bit heavy-handed, and so it didn’t help me to get through the length of the book, and the plot’s predictability hurt in that area, as well. That said, I did love the footnotes (when I could read them – they didn’t show up in my tablet e-version, sadly, but I did get a print version of the book when I was on page 500 or so) and the false historicity of the book. I’ll definitely try to check out more Joyce Carol Oates. Perhaps her short stories are more my pace!
Victoria: My primary negative comment is that I thought the book was too long; it took me a literal month to slog through this one and toward the end all I could think about were all the other books I wanted to read. That being said, I really enjoyed it. I was so enthralled by this story and, also, consumed by trying to figure out what in the actual f$%& was happening, and what it all meant. (I mean, it’s litfic, it has to mean something right?)
Would I recommend it? To a certain kind of reader: the ambitious, fans of literary fiction, people who aren’t afraid of heft.
Liz: Honestly, this book was a slog for me. I found myself unable to relate to or really care about the characters. Since beginning the book, I have heard from others that Oates varies greatly from story to story. It’s entirely possible she’s not the author for me but this first entry point was not a strong one. I would recommend this book to someone who had a good deal of time to dedicate to really immersing themselves in this story. Going to an ocean beach house for a week? Camping in the woods? Long flight? This one is for you.
So, first – these reviews are amazing. How did we get three pretty different reviews off of this one book? And what the hell Joyce Carol Oates! (And Stephen King!) Are all of her books like this? Did I just happen to pick the wrong one to start on? The massive, gothic, dragging, absurd, JCO starter trial by fire?
Have you read any JCO? What do you think of her? Have you, by chance, read The Accursed? What did we get ourselves into?