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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

=book recently read: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates=

Except for the penultimate chapter, when a lot of innocent characters killed off in the first 650 pages are miraculously restored to life, this was a big, rich, satisfying historical novel in the 19th century tradition. Basically, it's a gothic-inspired tale of sin, retribution, demonic possession and repressed sexuality in 1906, Princeton, NJ. At first this might seem an odd time and place for such gothic goings-on but the claustrophobic academic community Oates recreates proves a more than adequate stage for demonic evil. It's a schizoid world where wealth and privilege uneasily coexists alongside poverty and squalor mainly by turning a blind eye to it. Blacks may no longer be slaves, but they still aren't equal to whites, and can find themselves targeted for violence without much hope for justice. Racial purity is extolled as a virtue but most of the best families have a few "mixed sheep" in their flock, which they never acknowledge.  Certain kinds of sex are "unspeakable" but practiced nonetheless—in secret and in shame.  Religion is important to everyone on Sunday—the rest of the week, every vice is indulged.

Woodrow Wilson, as the beleaguered, bedeviled President of Princeton is a character, as is Mark Twain, ex-President Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and even a hallucinated Sherlock Holmes. Oates plays fast and loose with the historical elements but that just adds to the fun. As her historian-narrator asserts more than a few times, history itself is a story that depends a lot on the teller. There is more than one history of the world.

As for the "happy" ending…well, it is entirely unrealistic, as noted, but then you have to understand that The Accursed is in no way meant to be a "realistic" novel even if it's perversely narrated by a historian. The fact is "The Accursed" is a kind of fairytale where  events, even one as final and determined as death, are symbolic. When the Prince kisses Sleeping Beauty he's not engaging in necrophilia; as such, the four grandchildren of the not-so-right Reverend Slade, whose dark secret is the source of the curse, aren't really dead, all appearances to the contrary; they are ensorcelled. When the spell is broken, like Sleeping Beauty, they, too, awaken again to life. Once you grasp that this is the game Oates is playing, you understand that the conclusion of The Accursed isn't just a desperate, out of left field attempt to wrest a happy ending from all the preceding horror, but that the resolution makes perfect sense; you might even say it's inevitable.

Still, even with the mitigated happy ending, this is a dark novel where enough bad things happen that are not rectified, enough bodies fall that are not resurrected to satisfy most pessimists. Oates gets it right about human nature—at it's worst, there's nothing worst, not in heaven nor in hell. At its best, it's always in imminent danger of becoming its worst. As Sartre's Joseph Garcin observed when he couldn't find the exit: "So this is hell. I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the burning-marl? Old wives tales! There's no need of red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people."

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