Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates



Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)


This is the sort of big, clever, historical, dry book I really like. But, as a fairly obvious warning: it’s big, clever, historical, and dry. It won’t be the sort of book everyone likes. I feel compelled to admit that it took me nearly a week to finish The Accursed, and that’s a long time for me. The writing was complicated, the plot took enormous detours, and the “historian” narrator sometimes talked himself in circles. As it’s the depths of winter, and I have a comfortable reading chair, I can totally get into sprawling stories with an endless parade of characters. The setting and drama – and there’s drama a’plenty – captured my attention even if the novel’s pace was sometimes a slog. I happily kept reading through the superfluous chapters about socialism and the transcribed Christian sermons because I was determined to see what befell the characters. I’m also not bothered by academic prose. Many people ain’t got time for that shit. And that’s ok, but this will not be the best choice for those readers.  I’m giving the book 3 1/2 stars rather than 4 because I don’t know tons of folks to whom I would recommend this book, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

The Accursed is the history of mystifying, diabolical events plaguing the well-to-do families of Princeton in the early 1900s. Real figures like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London play major roles in the affluent setting, though the fictional Slade family is at the curse’s center. The book contains extensive footnotes; chapters told in letters; diary entries; and an ever-changing cycle of points of view. We read about the story’s strange events, horrors which are inexplicable to so many people, through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of perspectives. I assumed that I knew who the main character would be in the first chapter, and got attached to the fellow, only to change my mind completely in the next chapter. And again, and again, the focus shifted. In situations like this, it gets hard to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is hallucinating, and who sees the truth. When unexplainable phenomena – and is it really phenomena, at that? – strikes a group of people set staunchly in their respective ways, everyone sees his or herself as a hero and a saint. The devil wanders in and out of The Accursed in several guises, and eventually it becomes hard to tell whether evil forces or human nature are to blame for so much humiliation, ignorance, passion, and misery.

It would take me ages to try and formulate a concise summary of the 688 page saga’s plot. A lot of stuff happens in Oates’s book. A stranger comes to town. Young women behave in ways their families could never have imagined. Political and social unrest presses in on Princeton, in the form of lynchings nearby and the rise of the working man around the country. The rich are fearful, the rich are scandalized, the rich write in their diaries about who won’t be invited to tea again anytime soon. There’s a nightmarish bog-kingdom where a supernatural villain imprisons his transfixed wives. There’s a big to-do about campus politics. A girl’s school is attacked by invisible snakes. Sometimes 1906 Princeton seems just as exotic as Bermuda and Antarctica, where certain characters escape from the claustrophobic social scene even though they cannot escape the curse’s reach. Mark Twain annoys the heck out of Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and that made me very happy. (Team Twain!) Men murder their wives, women think about poisoning their friends, Jack London is a jerk when he’s drunk, people travel in their dreams. The pages are many and the plot goes all over the place.

It gets harder to figure out where Hell has a hand in the novel’s events as the novel progresses, and, interestingly, the narrator himself isn’t too sure. The child of some minor characters in The Accursed, our narrator has set out to chronicle the events with an eye for including all the facts. All. The. Facts. Some readers will get really annoyed about this, because there are many details which could have been overlooked without altering the plot one bit. While constructing an in-depth study of a certain time and place – and the social complexities therein – Joyce Carol Oates may have been a little self-indulgent with the editing process. But I honestly had fun with this book. I liked the witty banter just as much as I liked the horrifying visions. I learned new things: before reading The Accursed I couldn’t have constructed two sentences about Upton Sinclair or Woodrow Wilson. Now I want to go find out what sort of people they really were. I also appreciated how the inherent racism and sexism of the time period was brought to light, without pardoning the characters for their ignorance. Some younger characters learn to be more thoughtful about their fellow man as their world changes around them, and some otherwise likable men and women tout hideous opinions which should make any reader today cringe. Oates neither excuses nor condemns the accepted judgements of the early 20th century. She just subtly reminds us how dangerous it is to think that certain races, genders, and classes deserve their misfortune. Because misfortune happens to everyone in this story, and it’s impossible to say if anyone deserves the fates they suffer.

I have recommended The Accursed to a friend who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because the style and subject are similar. Both books are heavy with historical details and vivid characters. They each take a fascinating time period and introduce supernatural elements to the scene, thus exposing the ridiculous qualities of real life, which may as well be fantasy for all the sense it makes. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quite a bit more than I liked The Accursed, because I thought the supernatural elements were more cohesive and the plot was much cleaner. (You can read an old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here, which I wrote with my best book-friend.) That being said, fans of American history and literature might well prefer The Accursed. There were themes and structures of folklore in each book, each rooted firmly in the country of its origin. The nightmare world in The Accursed followed some grisly fairy-tale patterns which reminded me of Clarke’s haunting fairy lands. I can’t really compare The Accursed to other examples of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, because it is so different from the few books I’ve read (like the YA novel I read over the summer). The writing here is so invested in the historical and biographical tone I almost forgot that such a curse never really existed. I’ll take that as a very good thing indeed, because if I’m drawn into a world so deeply I lose myself in it, then the book must be doing something right. Not all of you will like The Accursed, and it may not always be the right time to delve into such a behemoth, but if you’ve got time to kill and a mind for some complex drama, give it a try. At the end, you’ll be able to return to the real world more easily than some of the doomed characters you meet along the way.


High School Books Part I: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

I started my new job on Tuesday, at one of my favorite bookstores in the state, so Monday marked the end of my last ever summer vacation.  I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the comfort of knowing that every September school would start again and the real world would disappear for a while, and maybe this nostalgia is what inspired me to read three books in a row which were set in high schools.   I find that I enjoy realistic (or semi-realistic) YA fiction about high school and college much more now that I’m officially done with my formal education. The miseries associated with institutionalized learning have had a chance to fade, leaving me with rather fictionalized memories of my adventures and friends.

The three books which I read in rapid succession last week were The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart; After the Wreck, I picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away by Joyce Carol Oates; and The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler.  I’ll post my thoughts on each book over the next three days, saving my favorite for last, and I hope you lovely readers will leave comments with your own favorite books set in high schools.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 +

A friend of mine recommended The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to me because she knew I had gone to a prep school in Massachusetts very much like the fictional “Alabaster Preparatory Academy” in the novel.  I think that Alabaster is actually based on the other slightly-snobby-prep-school in that particular town, but I must say that the similarities in the characters, setting, and inner workings of the Academy certainly brought me back to my teenage years of napping in the arts wing and complaining about the administration.  The storyline is fairly simple: in her sophomore year at Alabaster, ambitious Frankie Landau-Banks acts out against people’s expectations and the school’s outdated, exclusionary legacy by secretly taking control of The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.  The Basset Hounds have been an all-male circle dedicated to drunken parties and elaborate pranks since 1951, and when Frankie starts dating one of the head members she decides to shake things up and prove that a girl who was once nicknamed “Bunny Rabbit” can mastermind plots and keep her identity a secret better than a bunch of self-indulgent boys.

The plot is interesting enough, but it’s the characters who really carry The Disreputable History.  While they’re all undoubtably in the privileged yuppie category – with a few exceptions – they’re well written and extremely funny, and none of them are purely good people.  I appreciate the way that E. Lockhart (aka Emily Jenkins) was able to write likable characters with winning personality traits while still acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that no one is the best version of themselves in high school.  Like real teenagers who are trying to carve a place for themselves in the world, the fictional students of Alabaster have to change, grow, and sometimes recognize that they aren’t turning into the sort of person they’d like to be.

The relationships and friendships in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are pretty similar to what I remember from my prep school days, and while the themes of loyalty and obligation are blown a little out of proportion, thanks to the secret society plot line, the big concerns of the novel were realistic and would be relatable for most teenaged readers.  I don’t usually look for stories focusing on high school social circles, but in the midst of so many books about lovestruck teenagers facing supernatural destiny in oppressive futures I actually enjoyed the down to earth themes in The Disreputable History.  I also really enjoyed the way that Lockhart dealt with the inevitable romantic tension which built in young Frankie’s life: for those of you who are tired of young people defying all odds to be together, read through to the end of this particular book for teenagers.  Even though its set in a co-ed boarding school and dating plays a huge role in the plot, our heroine Frankie comes to some rather enlightened conclusions about how romance fits – or sometimes fails to fit – into a time of turbulent self-discovery.

I’d recommend The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks to fans of boarding school stories like Looking For Alaska, to readers who wish that YA heroines could carry their own story without any help from true love, and to anyone who can recognize the ridiculousness of some prep school traditions.  I enjoyed laughing at the parallels to my own school, but also enjoyed the novel for its own merits.  Since it’s a fast read and not a challenging story, it would be a good book to take on a road trip this summer, or to read when September rolls around if you’re lucky enough to be heading back to school yourself.

Also, there are grammar jokes.  And who doesn’t love a good grammar joke now and then?