Joyce Carol Oates!!! She is a force to be reckoned with. I haven’t read her for several years but I grew up in Princeton, NJ. When I learned that her new novel was historical fiction set on and around the campus of the Ivy League University where she has been a professor of creative writing for over 30 years, I knew it was time to revisit both the author and the town.
I first read JCO in the late 1980s. Languishing in Los Angeles, where I was involved in an attempt to “go straight” after years of rebellion and excess by taking a course in management training, I haunted a used bookstore on Franklin Avenue and picked up Marya: A Life (1986). Plunged into a world of impoverished grit and abuse that shocked my soul, I began to suffer from delusions of being followed by creepy people. I even managed to get mugged one evening. The novel reawakened all my deepest childhood fears.
Over the next decade I made my way through her first eight novels. I became aware of her mixed critical reception, including complaints about her overheated prolixity and the inevitable mockery that results from such relentless productivity. I moved on to other authors but never forgot her ability to take me to those dark places inherent in any human soul.
I am here to tell you that she has not lost her touch. The Accursed chronicles a curse or horror that fell upon the upper crust of Princeton society in 1905-1906. Just beyond the Gilded Age, during which the rise of railroads and steel and coal mining created the most wealth our young country had ever known, the first century saw the stirrings of socialism, muckraking, workers unions and strikes. This novel captures it all.
An array of well-known characters appear: Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton University; ex-President of the United States Grover Cleveland; current President Teddy Roosevelt; Upton Sinclair, living just outside of town where he completed The Jungle; Jack London, Mark Twain, and even an individual claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. The main character though is none other than the Devil himself.
The main issue is passion in its variegated forms and the manifestations that suppression of passion creates in society: illness, abduction, oppression, abuse, injustice, and madness. All of these are roiling beneath a veneer of wealth, privilege, religion, and intellectual pursuit amongst the wealthy businessmen and professors and clergy of Princeton.
Oates speaks through the measured narrative voice of a historian, son of one accursed professor; also through the hysterical journal of a rich matron reduced to invalidism due to an “unspeakable” accident suffered during her honeymoon; and even through Woodrow Wilson’s letters to his wife as well as to a love interest. In portraying the scenes of violence and degradation stemming from the curse however, the voice is unmistakably hers.
Not one character escapes the underlying satire wafting through this tale, which masquerades as historical fiction but brings the reader face to face with our hypocrisies, our Puritan heritage, and our cruelties. Like I said, Joyce Carol Oates has not lost her touch.
I finished The Accursed feeling as ill as some of the characters, as insane as other characters, and as despairing. There are villains, there are heroes, there is evil and God, but who is who and which is which had confounded me for almost 700 pages. The world we “see” is not the world that is. As one of Oates’ titles exhorts us, “You Must Remember This.”