Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
496 pages, Ecco, January 2014
I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates.
You know how some authors just have that voice? That sound to their writing. If you were given a sample of their writing – say, an unpublished page, with nothing telling you who wrote it – you’d know immediately which author had written it?
I feel like there are a few authors I’d know immediately from a sample of this sort. Stephen King; John Irving; Margaret Atwood; Peter Straub; Joyce Carol Oates.
She has a very distinctive way of writing, especially with dialogue. A lot of sentence fragments; a lot of hesitation, dashes, nervous laughter. Her men are all bluster; her woman are usually timid mice with moments of fire. The circumstances might change, but the characters mainly remain the same.
We Were the Mulvaneys remains my favorite of her books; never have I read a book that hits so close to the experience of a rape victim, that shame, the way it tears up a family and a community. I also love her Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is my Heart (and not only for the title, a quote from one of my favorite poems) and her Black Water (if you want a barely-fictionalized take on the Chappaquiddick incident, that’s the one for you. It’s heartbreaking.) Or Zombie, the grimmest little realistic serial killer novel you can get your hands on. And if you want to read one of the creepiest short stories ever written, here. Read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I just re-read it and got the shivers all over again. Arnold Friend, with his empty boots and holding you so tight you won’t even think of getting away. His just doing two or three things to you, that’s all. I have actual gooseflesh over this.
Carthage treads familiar territory for Oates, both setting-wise and plot-wise. In a small upstate New York town (there were so many places I recognized – this is set where I grew up, so we had Potsdam and St. Lawrence and Plattsburgh and Dannemora, with a little Albany thrown in for good measure) live the Mayfield family – Zeno and Arlette and their two daughters, Juliet and Cressida. Juliet is the pretty one. Cressida is the smart one. Juliet is engaged to Brett Kincaid, who, after 9/11, immediately signs up to serve in the military, and comes back a broken man. Once he’s home, Cressida disappears – and all signs point to the severely disabled war veteran as the culprit.
I had problems with this book. I love Oates, and I loved the setting, and as always, reading her voice made me happy – but the plot and the characters left a lot to be desired.
There was no one to root for. Zeno was a holier-than-thou blowhard; Arlette ended up ok, but was a bit of a non-entity; Juliet was similar to her mother, somewhat non-existent other than as a plot device; Brett was probably the most interesting character, but not used enough. And the book wasn’t about them, anyway. It was about Cressida. And Cressida was a terrible character.
There was no explanation for her. She seemed to be annoying just to be annoying. There was a mention here and there that she might be autistic, but that was dropped, as if Oates forgot about it. She was described in the most derogatory of terms, with frizzy hair, like a little monkey, like a boy (she apparently never developed); she was rude to everyone, she didn’t know how to socially interact and no one dared correct her when she was being rude, she purposely ruined people’s things and lives…
How am I supposed to feel any empathy for this person? And the book needed me to feel empathy for her to work. I just couldn’t. She was a spoiled brat whose only impetus for anger was that people thought of her as “smart” and not “pretty” like her sister. Who the hell CARES? I’d choose being the smart one over the pretty one any day of the week. The pretty one eventually fades; the smart one endures. Maybe you don’t realize that until you’re older, but still, that’s the reason for everything that happens in this book? Weak. Weak plot.
I can’t totally dislike the book. It kept me reading and interested throughout. I love Oates’ work. I’ll continue to read her. But this just wasn’t that successful for me. (And it seems a lot of people are agreeing with me, scanning reviews online.)
If you’re not an Oates person, I can recommend a lot of her books that are better for you, if you’d like to BECOME an Oates person. She’s written enough that there are a ton of starting points for you. I just wouldn’t make this one of them.