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Joyce Carol Oates gets a few things off her chest - highly entertaining historic mystery(?)
on 9 March 2013
Wow. Hard to do justice to this sprawling (667 pages) and shape-shifting saga. Two days after finishing "The Accursed" and I'm still thinking about this juggernaut of crime and punishment in the late Gilded Age. Actually, the theme of crime and punishment doesn't even get close to the elements of good and evil that author Joyce Carol Oates has woven together in this genre-bending novel that starts as historical fiction and quickly begins to shift toward science-fiction/horror, with a general "sins of the fathers" overhang. Along the path there is an in depth look at social history--including a chilling sub-story of northern lynchings, racial discrimination and casual abuse of Blacks and other non-WASP citizens that become a moral legacy that must be reckoned with as the book progresses. .
What could be called a rage against the patriarchy is also a central theme of "The Accursed", where great men of the time--Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Samuel Clemens and their male sidekicks and relatives are shown to be among the worst of misogynists of the period; dependent upon their female partners in all ways, but ungrateful, self-absorbed and completely insensitive in their relationships with their better halves.
The book's setting in Princeton, New Jersey of 1905-1906 (the author's own long-time home), provides a context of protected male WASP establishment privilege, within the university where Woodrow Wilson sits as President and worries about the next step up the career ladder, the erosion of his current authority by faculty rivals and his health, which is under constant attack by his world-class hypochondria; and in the outside community which is a stronghold of corporate and political heavy hitters, where everyone is subservient to the lord and master.
Also in residence in one of the less fashionable parts of Princeton is the young muckraker writer and Socialist, Upton Sinclair, who represents coming social and political change, but also the cluelessness of important men of the time in their treatment of women and children. Sinclair (the character) will pay for his preoccupation with the general improvement of public welfare with personal loss that is beyond his understanding. Despite his failings, I got the impression that author Oates came closest to admiration for Sinclair than for most of the rest of the book's cast of characters.
While this review may make it seem as though this book is some kind of strident commentary on Belle E[poch/Edwardian morality--which in part it definitely is--it's also a terrific, if somewhat erratic novel--with rich language, finely drawn characters and credible insights into how the forefathers and mothers played out their lives in what was a Gilded Age for only a very few people. The story allows for very little false nostalgia by the end of the story.
I haven't tried to include a thumbnail plot summary in this review because it just isn't practicable or necessary. I'll just recommend that you read "The Accursed" with patience and acceptance of the author's cross-genre and unorthodox methodology and enjoy the rollercoaster.