Full disclosure: in the San Francisco airport (which boasts a great bookstore), I picked up this book because I love Joyce Carol Oates. Once I read the back, however, I never would have bought it if not for the author, a woman and writer I admire greatly, since I read her haunting and uncomfortable “Where are you going, where have you been?” short story in high school.
The back summarizes the story as such: in Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century, a curse takes over the town. The back mentions vampires, ghosts, an underworld, shape shifters, historical figures–like Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London.
Like I said, this book had no chance to be bought by me (the back summary was nowhere near my cup of tea) but I trust the author. So, I bought this whopper of a book at 667 pages and carried it through the airport with my already present laden bags.
Throughout the book, I wondered if I should even write about it here. How will I explain it, I wondered? Well, I’ll tell them that they should definitely read Oates and that this book is worth reading but I would never start an Oates virgin with this book. It’s not her normal style, seen in the likes of her opus to Marilyn Monroe in Blonde or even the grounded Missing Mom.
Oates writes this book from the point of view of a historian who actually is an infant at the time of the curse. Somehow he has documents no other historian ever found and was able to decode a journal no one else in history could decode (22). He is not objective. He tries to be but he often feels the need to explain his decisions when it comes to the details he includes and does not include. It can be dry, as histories can be. The humor is often sly, at the expense of the “characters” (who from the historian’s “point of view” are real people and therefore, sometimes he feels badly for making them look a certain way, though he assures the reader he is only recording the facts).
The book begins with the “unspeakable” act of a lynching. It’s the white aristocracy which calls it “unspeakable.” In fact, the men consider the women of the town even to delicate to hear of such things. So begins the the strands of race, sex, and class that twine through the gothic novel. Woodrow Wilson, for example, at this point the president of Princeton University thinks to himself, “As to the matter of the ugly Klan lynching–Mrs. Wilson would not have spoke of so obscene an event if she even heard of it. For there are some things too ugly for women to know of. Genteel Christian women, at least” (22). As you can see, Wilson’s priorities are a little out of whack and when I say a little, I mean a lot. This passage also brings up a huge part of the book–that of religion.
Really the book centers on the Slade family. Winslow Slade, the patriarch, is a reverand and is looked upon as the sage, father figure of the town. They would say he was the best of them–in character and deed–and always has an open door for anyone in need of advice or help. The story then revolves around his grandchildren–Annabel, Josiah, Todd, and Oriana–and how the curse affects them. Fantasy and gothic elements mix together in a tough mortar along with religion. Why are certain people afflicted by the curse? How can people known forever suddenly turn and do something so out of character? Is it truly out of character, or has their horrible action just been lurking beneath the surface? The historian does his upmost not to make judgements and as I read, it was hard for me to make judgements too when it comes to the root of the curse (when it came to making judgements about how race and gender were handled I wanted to reached into the book and knock some people out…even the socialist and one would think, progressive Upton Sinclair, writer of The Jungle is sexist and ignorant to his prejudices).
Ultimately, when it came to this curse, I kept coming back to the depravity of man–that is the true curse. Because no vampire or ghost can be held accountable for sexism, racism, classism, and even insanity.
People are characterized (by the town) as good or bad, white or black, poor or wealthy, woman or man, married or single. They are not allowed to step outside the bounds of those characterizations. So this isn’t a book about vampires, not really. And yet I don’t want to say much more without giving anymore away.
Did I enjoy it? Yes. I found Oates ability to write from the historian’s point of view uncanny. It very well could be a history. At one point, I thought I caught her in a mistake (the horror) and in the end, she out smarted me. Furthermore, by the end of the book, I knew only some of what really truly happened, just as a historian would, looking back. I am still left questioning and wondering where the line between fantasy and realism is found and I suppose that’s the point.
If you’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates before, I don’t recommend that you start with this book. Her narrator is so in character that there were many times I wondered if he wasn’t truly writing the thing. If you want a taste of what Oates’ is like start with the short story I mentioned at the top–”Where are you going, where have you been.”
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Four stars because it is an opus that leaves me with more questions than answers which is uncomfortable but a feat.