on 21 June 2014
This is an imaginative blend of historical fiction, social commentary and the supernatural. Ms. Oates has created very well developed characters and comments beautifully and subtly on the snobbery, racism and chauvinism of the US ruling classes at the start of the 20th century. This is epitomised by the puritan Anglo-Saxon “elite” of Princeton. As a comedy of social manners of the time alone it would work well. The character of Woodrow Wilson (President of Princeton University at the time) is particularly well drawn and his vanity and ingrained racism and sexism are very skilfully portrayed. Indeed there are a number of other “real life” historical characters including Jack London, Grover Cleveland (also a US President) and Upton Sinclair. Above all though it is a compelling if unusual supernatural drama. The depiction of the bog kingdom is superb and the paranormal reminds me of “Jonathan Strange & Dr. Norrell”. The evil of the devilish interlopers is also brilliantly evoked. The book is long, probably 100 pages or so too long but highly recommended if you like such a concoction of social comedy, horror and fiction. A great writer. Surprised at mediocre reviews but it's a matter of taste.
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.
Centring on a supernatural curse affecting the immediate vicinity of Princeton University `The Accursed' is the latest instalment of Oates Gothic saga that began with `Bellefleur' published in 1980. The story runs through the period of 1900-1910 this impressive tome deals with the issue of the moral hysteria that begins to wreak havoc within this claustrophobic community.
As is usual with the wonderful Joyce Carol Oates this reading experience is akin more to a marathon than to a jog, and is all the more satisfying for it. Running at over 600 pages prepare to be immersed in a sprawling literary journey that is both breathtaking and masterful in its scope skilfully intergrating real life figures from American history, and unashamedly drawing the reader in to the less savoury sides of their characters. Many major themes of racism, sexism and mysoginism loom large throughout the book and Oates tackles these with aplomb and adopts a deliberately controversial viewpoint at times with the authorial voice resonating strongly. Oates is never one to shy away from the more controversial aspects of the characters she portrays and dares to challenge our preconceptions. Figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, Jack London and Upton Sinclair himself move in and out of the plot, with Oates bluntly turning her pen, so to speak, on the less likeable characteristics particularly in relation to the political figures and within the greater context of the social issues of this period.
The plot is far too expansive to even begin to attempt to dissect in a review, but suffice to say that if you relish writing that reflets the Gothic tradition of the finest exponents of American fiction there is more than enough to sate your appetite. Opening with the elopement of a young bride with a man who may or may not be of supernatural stock the scene is set for further revelations of the demonic kind in this quintessential tale of terror and Gothic delights. Personally speaking, I found this highly reminiscent of Henry James- one of my favourites from the American canon- and I rather enjoy the experience of wading through literary treacle as it were, in the elongated descriptive passages, the incredibly slow burning plot and the minutiae of character detail that pays such close attention to historical fact. A challenging read it must be said but for this reader personally, a more than satisfying one.
on 14 February 2015
I found ‘The Accursed’ at times interesting, informative, historically probing, a spur to further research, psychologically acute, outrageous, borderline ridiculous, horribly unsettling and, above all, hugely entertaining. From the very beginning we are plunged into the trials, tribulations, perturbations and horrors of an age in which changing attitudes towards class, race, gender, sexuality are causing psychological and social havoc to break out on a devastating scale in white, Anglo Saxon patriarchal and protestant small town America. The particular place is Princeton, New Jersey, the time is 1904/05 and the large cast of characters a mix of the historical (principally Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair) and the fictional (the benighted Slade family of Crosswicks Manse among others). It is through the personalities and experiences of these protagonists that the drama of painful change is played out; the slow ‘sloughing off’ of the old dark murderous dishonesties and hypocrisies. The ‘unspeakable’, so often alluded to, is at last to be spoken of out loud.
Oates captures period and place beautifully – the details of town and university, buildings and interiors, clothes and hairstyles are set out alongside the physical idiosyncrasies and mental frailties of individuals crippled by social snobbery, sexual repression and religious indoctrination. The historical record is not done any great violence. A good deal of what goes on here does so in the heads of the characters. Are they ill? Stressed? Over imaginative? In their right minds? Who can say!
There are numerous allusions to the literature and folklore of the old world – Stoker’s Dracula most obviously (the Count is a European aristocrat with impeccable manners and a way with the ladies!). The Bog Kingdom and its inhabitants deep in the woods have echoes of a Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Count and Countess as ‘bizarro’ versions of Oberon and Titania (The Countess wants to keep Todd for herself much as Titania does the little Indian boy). Winslow Slade’s ‘vengeful God’ tirade is reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe’s tortured religious musings on his island in Defoe’s classic work.
The book is long with many characters and lots of twists and turns but if you have the time to dive in and go with the flow it is quite fascinating and great fun.
on 22 July 2014
This is one of JCO's less readable works, but it's worth slogging through it to the end, because despite its pockets of boredom, it's a marvellous imaginative experience. Far better to have this kind of oddball Gothic novel from her, with its bizarre and infectious humour, than the more mainstream work like We Were The Mulvaneys, which I gave up reading quite early on. I recommend reading her early work like Them and Wonderland, as the purity of style is absent from the later works, excellent though they are. At some point her writing developed certain linguistic tics, the most irritating of which is 'only just' when 'only' or 'just' would have been adequate. It feels like some kind of colloquial inheritance of hers. Another she likes to use quite often is 'it was so' at the beginning of paragraphs or sentences in general. She keeps these tics to a relative minimum here, but there are still numerous mistakes that an assiduous editor would have removed. For instance, why is Ellen Wilson (the wife of Woodrow Wilson) at least twice referred to as Ellen West? Bizarre. Also at one point a reference is made to the rise of the women's movement, but it refers to the nineteen sixties, when in fact it's supposed to be the eighteen sixties. Having carped about these things, JCO is really the only living writer I will constantly read, because she's the only one that really matters. She remains a master of style and tone, and of course of characterisation. I love the searingly negative portrait of Jack London spouting out his repulsive racist attitudes, and the endearing portrait of the overly earnest Socialist and novelist Upton Sinclair. Yes, he's naive and unable to look after his wife, but one can't help but admire a figure who genuinely believed in what he did, unlike the odious Jack London. I even feel some sympathy for Woodrow Wilson in this portrait, despite his chauvinism and light-hearted racist banter, simply because of his level of confusion, his sense of being beleaguered at the university, and his catalogue of illnesses. You get the sense of the characters being imprisoned by the general ignorance (social, political, medical, cultural) of their time, of them being victims of their forebears, of being fundamentally doomed. If anyone wants to experience the true Oates, then you will find it here, more than in her social-realist depictions of family lives torn asunder. You will also find it alot in her ferociously intense short stories. She is literature's only living genius, so the least any serious reader can do is sit through this vast eccentric tome. By the end any intelligent reader will be glad they made the effort, considerable though it is.
on 27 December 2013
I love Joyce Carol Oates but she can be hit and miss. This was a miss for me, unfortunately. The story just rambled on and on and on... I lost interest in both the characters and the plot and didn't finish it.
on 30 July 2013
Oates is such a prolific writing and encompasses so many styles - but this latest reminds me of classics like 'Bellefleur' and 'Mysteries of Wintherthurn', ambitious in scope and creating a world that is simultaneously fantastical, but also firmly rooted in a historical reality. Yes, it's extremely long with a huge gallery of characters, but well worth persevering with. I got fully involved in the lives of the Slades, Burrs, Wilsons in the Princeton of the early Twentieth Century and the mysterious Curse that appears to have cast its gloom over them all. In some respects, it reminds me of Sarah Waters' 'The Little Stranger' - which I also found very unsettling in places. This is an eerie gothic chiller, with some truly inspired and haunting moments, yet also moving and (surprisingly) humorous in parts. It's also an interesting allegory about US politics and how certain attitudes and value systems have helped to shape America today. A great read.
on 6 November 2014
I have read most, if not all, of her books and some of them more than once. To me she is an astonishingly powerful writer. I saw once that the actress Jeanne Moreau referred to her as a 'witch'. However, I found this one to be a struggle. No spoiler here, but some passages were tedious and I guess that at the end of the day you have to engage with the main character and I found this to be impossible.
on 30 June 2014
I am not an Oates fanatic. I liked some of her books and disliked others, but this one convinced me completely. In my opinion it has a strong plot, a carefully crafted language and interesting characters. (There might be some logic issues but on the whole that doesn't seem to matter too much, since this is not a book about logic.) Above all the book features very strong scenes, in particular those that take place in the bog country. Also it felt very modern to me and not old at all - Oates plays with traditional gothic narrative but in a very entertaining way. All in all the novel gripped me like few others have and I felt like I had fallen into a very scary sometimes confusing but always very engaging dream.
on 6 May 2015
I did not quite understand the plot, bur stilistically it was superb