Sometimes there comes a book that gets me completely stuck, and Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel The Accursed was one of those books. During my internship I found an amazing interview with Oates from a 1978 issue of The Paris Review. In college I had some limited exposure to her work, and this interview renewed my interest. Her new novel was the perfect opportunity to borrow a hardcover copy at my bookseller gig. And then it nearly defeated me.
My problem with The Accursed is similar to that of The Casual Vacancy. It’s long, and it feels long. Like, “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading this book” long. Both novels are written on an epic scope, with many intertwining characters and plotlines. When epic novels work, they are extremely satisfying to read. The problem comes when I’m interested in some characters and plotlines, but others not so much. It’s like the novel that you want to read is constantly being interrupted by a novel that you probably wouldn’t pick up.
The Accursed is set in 1905 when a series of tragedies befall the elite families of Princeton, New Jersey. Annabel Slade, granddaughter of a prominent Presbyterian minister, is abducted on her wedding day by a demonic character. The Slade grandchildren are a central focus of the curse, but other Princeton families are afflicted as well. The fictional Slades are supplemented by historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair. I enjoyed the playful mixture of fact and fiction, although Upton Sinclair felt tangential to the main plot.
Oates made the interesting choice to have the narrator be a historian two generations removed from the events of the novel. This device appealed to my inner nerd, and I enjoyed the historical footnotes sprinkled throughout. However, the narrator purposely deflates the suspense on several occasions by revealing the outcome of conflict before it would come chronologically. It may be unique to have a narrator more concerned with historical accuracy than narrative structure, but what purpose does novelty serve if it makes the story less compelling?
In college I admired Joyce Carol Oates for her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I admire her even more after reading the Paris Review interview and others. She is known for being prolific, and I’m sure many of her other novels would be more satisfying to me. In the aforementioned interview she makes this point: “What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones.” Creativity works differently for every artist, and Oates fascinates me because her process is so singular.