Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

This was not the book I was hoping for.

Going in, I knew that this was a historical novel by the historian Joyce Carol Oates that involved a supernatural curse on members of the Princeton community shortly after the turn of the (20th) century. Woodrow Wilson, president -- of Princeton! -- was a main character. Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Mark Twain, and others also make appearances, along with demons, vampires, and Sherlock Holmes. I was hoping for a darker, scarier version of the fantasy-history novel of which Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the epitome (and The Night Circus was quite good, too). A glowing review of The Accursed by Stephen King sold me on the prospect despite the length.

There's some good detail here, historically, and Oates's device of telling the story through the pen of an 80's amateur historian is amusing. But this novel is far less than the sum of its parts. I was frustrated by the "one damn thing after another" sense in the middle, and although it's tied together a bit at the end, the tying-up depends on a view of the universe that I simply can't accept as having any truth in it. Anything good at the end, and there's some surprising deus ex machina stuff, makes no sense whatsoever in any moral sense. I find this interesting because Stephen King's universe is something I rarely have trouble accepting, but Joyce Carol Oates's universe, for all its historical detail, does not seem to have real people in it. On the surface the two universes may seem similar but on an experiential level I have totally different reactions to them. Oates holds an unconvincing view of faith and theology, for example.

The best examples of this genre seem real and also teach about the history of the era. This one teaches little and seems fake. Your story may be intricately researched and told, but if there's no point to it ... there's no point to my reading it.

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