This is a little baffling, in a way, because there are ways in which I’m not quite sure what to make of the book as a whole. Part of why I want other people to read it is so that we can sit down and discuss and I can hash out all these theories. But I do know that, fully understanding it or not, I love it quite a lot.
I have never read any Joyce Carol Oates before, but this will most definitely not be the last. I was just delighted and intrigued by the whole book. By the end, strangely, it had come to remind me just a little of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, only vastly less confusing and much, much more readable. Where they are similar is in their amassing, in a large book, a truly staggering range of Americana of the time period each was discussing, from the very weird to the horrifyingly mundane, to the most out-sized characters of history.
Whereas Pynchon was looking at very early Americana, Oates roots her story in the early 20th century, in 1905 and 1906 in Princeton, New Jersey. Woodrow Wilson is a character, as is Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and even Sherlock Holmes, as well as a whole raft of wealthy socialites and philanthropists who live in town. (This is why I need to talk about it - it’s not that I don’t get it, it’s that there’s so much that even with what I’ve grasped, I’m very sure there are things I’m missing.)
It’s also a gothic novel, through and through, and the supernatural is strangely mixed into the history. There are suggestions of vampires or demons preying on these wealthy white people, starting with Annabel Slade running away during her wedding ceremony with a mysterious Eastern European man and then disappearing. There are also plagues of snakes, statues of humans, stories of horrible orgies in an underworld, and all of these are laid in so subtly that at times it’s hard to tell if they’re supposed to be real within this fiction, or just the output of unstable minds.
But here is where it is genius. Beside all these manifestations of The Curse, the actual every day curses of early 20th century society exist, and Oates keeps drawing attention to them so deftly that it never feels overdone, but often feels more horrific than the horror. From racism to class warfare to domestic abuse and further, these curses are laid alongside the manifestations that the rich white upper class is willing to define as evil - that is to say, those aspects that affect them in ways they would have scarcely imagined possible.
The book meanders, sometimes, due to the huge scope, but I was pretty much always enthralled, and the final confession that haunts the last pages (the version of the book I have ends on page 667, which feels delightfully cheeky) pulls both types of horrors together, and roots one firmly in the other.
Oates is trying something so audacious here, and she sticks the landing. This is strong candidate for one of my top 10 books of the year.