Joyce Carol Oates must have had a ball writing The Accursed. This long (more than 600 pages), nutty tome covers a fractious year in the life of the Princeton upper crust in the early 20th century. Why Oates would bring such woe upon the place where she has happily lived and worked for years is anyone’s guess, but the result is tremendous fun.
The misfortunes that bedevil the Slades, Burrs and other muckety-mucks during that year of 1905-1906 seem to have been prompted by a lynching that draws forth the powers of darkness from a shadowy, scabrous netherworld called the Bog Kingdom. The first of these denizens of the dark to arrive in Princeton is Axson Mayte, who seduces a virginal Slade girl at the very moment of her marriage to a West Point graduate. It’s worse than “Downton Abbey”! Mayte is followed by a Count Gneist, who seems to be some sort of vampire and seduces one of the Slade girl’s relatives. Then, there’s the devilish Countess who almost seduces—wait for it—Woodrow Wilson, who at the time was the president of Princeton U.
Besides Wilson, there’s a nice sprinkling of historical characters throughout this novel, and Oates despises all of them. This reader is certain the only reason she doesn’t flat-out kill Wilson or have him dragged down to the Bog Kingdom is because, well, she couldn’t quite get away with that. Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and Mark Twain (and his noisome cigars) are portrayed with an almost gleeful viciousness, for these ghastly men and their fictional counterparts represent the very worst aspects of misogyny and patriarchy. Even those hearty socialists, London and Sinclair, think nothing of trampling or dismissing their women, and a goodly number of the fictional patriarchs are downright homicidal, not only toward their simpering, suffering wives, but their little children, too.
These overheated, intertwined stories are narrated by an elderly chap who was one of those little children who just managed to escape with his life. Though the narrator is speaking from the perspective of 1984, he sounds peculiarly Jamesian; when he mentions television near the book’s end the reader is actually startled.
Speaking of the book’s end, it’s so preposterous and over the top that the reader has to be impressed. But how else could Oates finish this tale? It’s bad enough, she seems to say, that Wilson went on to become the president of the United States. She had to make amends.
Anyone who takes on The Accursed should settle in for a long, bumpy, screwy, improbable but engrossing ride.
Read a Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates for The Accursed.