Book Reviews by Daniel Brown
The acclaim surrounding Joyce Carol Oates‘ newest novel, The Accursed, is much deserved: it is the best novel of 2013 to date and replete with complexities yet utterly readable–it is actually a keep-you-up-at-night page-turner, and at nearly 675 pages, that’s a lot of pages to turn.
Oates is probably the most paradoxical of American fiction writers: she is notoriously prolific–she writes about a novel a year, as well as short stories and mysteries under a pseudonym. Long considered a “gothic” novelist, a trait very much in evidence in Accursed, she tended to be underrated and undervalued by top tier readers, critics and academics, in spite of the many honors she has been awarded. Part of the problem , over the years, was a chronic miscalculation of her books, her intentions, her worlds. I am among the many who rather ignored her work over many years, until The Falls, and then The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and I became an Oates convert.
She has been reassessed by the literary elite, quite correctly, as it turns out, as one of American’s finest realist writers; I have always found her to be a realist, if a touch HyperRealist. Oates grew up near Buffalo/Niagara Falls, and the world in which she matured is a part of America that was already fading economically and sociologically as early as l962. Industries were closing left and right all through Upstate New York, an area of contrasts between great natural beauty and economic deprivation, much like West Virginia but with more of an original middle class. Nearly every mill town in Upstate New York and Northern New England was facing an end during the sixties. (When I drove to college my freshman year, which is in Vermont, my family and I stopped for dinner in Utica, New York, in this very area, where we learned that a friend of my parent’s was about to close the tannery he owned. Water pollution, a new idea at that time, had been discovered to be partially caused by chemicals tanneries had been dumping in rivers for decades, and The State of New York had decided to dump the entire clean-up onto the tannery owners, who would have been bankrupted, so they all began to shut down: same with many a textile mill in many a New England town: they were all located on rivers partly for this very ease of elimination of wastes, including dyes and the like. Thus Upstate New York was one of the first generally downwardly mobile parts of America–giant swaths of the Mohawk Valley were in the beginings of ruins. This is Oates’ world.
Her fascination in her novels has been with the survivors, with those who stay, and whose worlds became replete with drugs, alcoholism, petty thievery, and commonly, a lot of family abuse: these phenomenon are rife with the undertows of violence: thus her realism, often written off as exaggerated romantic gothicism. However, out of this very environment sprung and grew and nourished a young woman, Joyce Carol Oates, whose own blue-collar, working class family she occasionally alludes to in her books and stories; she now teaches at Princeton University, but she has long seen and looks for the underbellies of the worlds she inhabits, much like Joan Didion does.
The Accursed may well be Oates’ tour-de-force, although I have admittedly not read all her work. Postmodern in structure and ideation, she posits the idea that the Devil, in what will become three different guises, appears in the upper classes of Princeton, New Jersey in l905-6, when Woodrow Wilson really was President of the University, a school which the rich families barely notice, care about , or take very seriously.
Oates has an alleged surviving son of the era as the narrator, immediately taking a swipe at historiography and biography; in explaining his methodologies, we understand that much of it is lingering gossip of the era left in notebooks or diaries kept by rich , sheltered wives, whose lives consist of teas, gossip, and fascination with “the unspeakable”, which, of course, is sex (Freud’s theories on sexuality and hysteria were still very new in America). Throughout this novel, Oates will use the tropes of race, gender and class as her structuring devices (the class parts are particularly fascinating, as most of the art and literary worlds have mined race and gender, but have avoided class, as the worlds of the upper classes are difficult to penetrate. Oates will also play with, toy with, various other methodologies of postmodernism, making the novel a delight for smarties as well as for those looking for a great morality play of sorts.
She structures the novel a lot around the occasional party, meeting between friends, random encounters on the street, the snooping realities of any small town (which Princeton is). The role of women cannot be overemphasized, limited thought their worlds were. It’s an environment wherein husbands who work in banks or in corporate law in New York never discuss their work at home, houses of immense grandeur staffed by blacks, survivors of early slavery, and who
are living marginally in or around Witherspoon St. in Princeton (all these facts are real; I was a graduate student at Princeton in the early seventies). The women’s gossipy lives are the main structuring device, though Oates revels in secret meetings, hidden incidents from the pasts of the rich (which will, inevitably, come to haunt them). She also takes quite a few swipes at Presbyterianism, the dominant religion of the New Jersey of this era; the more the demonic appears, the more the Princetonians affirm that “we do not believe in demons” (who are virtually pounding on their doors and windows and invade their dreams, etc.). Wilson is presented as a prissy hypochondriacal man, replete with hypocrisy but a Presbyterian sense of “destiny”. The subthemes and subplots in this novel are rolling over each other; some of Oates’ most astute writing is on the petty politics of academia, which I am certain she well understands–and these subplots are often just fun and funny.
So even when Oates decides that one or two men should be vampires, and their victims are found with their necks drained of blood, she makes the vampires gay and the victims pretty young men–you have to appreciate the satire in doing this. Snakes appear in a women’s private school, causing massing hysteria–a Freudian delight, and we the readers are appalled and frightened, too, although we cannot help a small smirk–and Oates succeeds on every level with every literary trope she decides to include.
She also introduces Upton Sinclair and his wife, living on the periphery of Princeton while he writes his masterpiece The Jungle (he cares about all the poor and deprived yet totally ignores his falling-apart wife and is blissfully unconcerned about his new baby: here Oates presents the liberal who cares about everyone in despair but his own family. Novelist Jack London makes an appearance as titular head of a new Socialists League in New York, and ends up appearing to be a complete bigot: here, Oates wants us to differentiate between the public and the private man, with overlays of hints on the worlds of celebrities yet to come (although I have always considered the Bloomsbury group in England to be the first marketers of “lifestyle” in The West).
Oates will even offer different endings to her novel–how postmodern can you get?– and even though one of them is really foolish, it is, after all, her novel. But there is a sermon of sorts at the very end of the book, which I don’t want to spoil, but suffice it to say that Joyce Carol Oates is nearly at the level of one of the greatest chapters in literature, Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, in The Brothers Karamozov, in her ending to The Accursed–you will want to reread this ending several times and its ideas on The Old and New Testaments.
Suffice it to say that this is a truly great novel, entertaining and brilliant and often funny; she doesn’t get the reader to care terribly about any of the characters with one exception, a grand idea as many of them are at the mercy of the Devil so we don’t quite care what happens to them.
The Accursed is a must read and its enormous strengths remind us not to rush off to the newest young author when writers like Joyce Carol Oates are still very much at their peak, their most brilliant.
How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid.
This third novel by Pakistani Mohsin Hamid has been much praised, and deservedly so. The new globalized world seems to have its fair share of spin doctors, marketing specialists, publicists, and a lot of venture capitalists whom most of us have never heard of and only vaguely know what they’re up to (something like finding young companies worth funding): there’s a huge emphasis on entertainment, and far less on the new manufacturing, new energy sources, a revitalization of education. Take an example: we are informed that having electronic medical records is going to be a great boon, so that if you are in Mumbai and have a heart attack, prior records and digitalized images of MRI scans et. al can be whooshed by e-mail wherever you are; MRI scans in America are routinely e-mailed thus to India, where unknown specialists “read” them and send the results back by e-mail. What wondrous efficiency!
Except for those of us who happen to check our medical records: you would be astonished at the errors in them-wrong diseases, wrong medicines , drug allergies listed as preferred medicines, and the like. Beware the purveyors of another globalized miracle.
And a great deal of marketing brouhaha has roamed the boardrooms and offices of “financial analysts” and various brokers of financial investments about the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, India, China) where economic miracles are alleged to be occurring (all those technical support people whose accents you can’t understand, and/or where American “entrepeneurs” are raising the standard of living in African villages by paying a higher wage to the locals than they’d be paid in America (translation: the ten buck-an-hour call center job in the USA can be had for one dollar an hour in an African village). Progress! Cheap Labor! No Unions! The American consumer wins again! (assuming that he or she has a job ).
Along comes Hamid’s novel, which he structures as if it’s a self-help book for the dirt poor kid in some village in Pakistan (or another country like it). The chapter titles alone give an overview, from “Move to the City”, to “Don’t Fall in Love”, “Avoid Idealists”, “Work for Yourself”, and, later, the more cynical “Be Prepard to Use Violence”, “Befriend a Bureaucrat” (aka learn to bribe one) and the like. That the novel presents the keys to success as this generic is highly cynical (and often funny, if bittersweet). And though the author does not idealize the lost village life, particularly as women are treated in them–basically as chattel–he does underline the loss of family, community, a network of people who are there for everyday events as well as in emergencies. Hamid’s descriptions of these rapidly expanding generic Asian montrosity-cities are well rendered and frightening in their similarity, and how they wreck neighborhoods as well as environments , families, traditions, in favor of the elusive success, which equates to money. Our hero, a young boy “lucky” enough to be the third child born in a family, as there aren’t business or family obligations this down the pecking order (though his sister will be doomed to return to the village
as a bride of about eleven), will do all the things in the “self-help” book.
We see him mature and certainly prefer life in the city to life in his original village, and he certainly does all sorts of jobs, often two or three at a time. But he continues to run into someone he simply calls “the pretty girl” all through the novel. Her escape from the village into the life of modelling, minor television celebrity et. al mark her as unmarriageable, although her urban life is more free than that of most Asian women. The love affair between these two characters is the subtext of the novel, and it is oddly moving, more so as the two age, and their worlds narrow and they expect and want less of the outside world: in face, this is one of the loveliest love affairs, spread over decades, in much of recent literature, and it helps raise the novel from some reasonably predictable business ideas onto another level .
Hamid is really an excellent writer, observer, critic, if you will, and this very cynical novel should appeal to many, although I hope not for the wrong reasons (the self-help part). I do wish, however, that other writer/reviewers, in this case the very talented Dave Eggers, wouldn’t put in their press blurbs “Hamid is at the peaks of his considerable powers here….”, given that this is only the author’s third novel–how do we know where his peak powers may yet be?
The Times Book Review and a few other publications have been hawking younger writers and either their first novels and/or books of short stories, and their work is being overpraised (no doubt the writers have been overpraised all their lives). I am in the middle of some new short stories by Amber Dermont, whose novel The Starboard Sea, published last year, really was an astonishing debut, but her stories, so far, seem overmannered and perhaps too much in awe of Flannery O’Conner and other Southern women writers whose eccentricities were very much earned.
And, having just read and reviewed Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Accursed (see above), we need to remember what real brilliance and writerly elegance is about: we hope that Hamid aspires to the kind of excellence Oates manifests, and that readers and reviewers will find How To Get…Rich in Asia” as appealing as I do, but let’s not call it a masterpiece.