Modern Lit: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Accursed is a tricky novel to categorize. Among its various features are elements of the gothic, the paranormal, fantasy, historical fiction, and parody.  The story is set at Princeton University in the year from 1905 to 1906, and reflects a Gilded Age mindset among upper crust characters,of the type that used to be referred to as WASPs. In style it is reminiscent of Edith Wharton in its formality and use of language. The plot, related by a fictional historian who draws from and interprets primary sources such as personal journals, concerns a series of tragic events that plague Princeton’s elite families.  But don’t expect such mundane troubles as health epidemics or train wrecks, for Princeton is about to be invaded by demons, vampires, and snakes.

What the novel is really about, however, is social injustice, and the propensity of the rich and famous to sweep it under the rug. At the turn of the twentieth century, the socialist movement was gaining momentum, and public outrage was about to be aroused, but such major changes as women’s suffrage, gender roles, labor rights, poverty, and racial violence take decades to achieve results.  In The Accursed, readers meet  personages from both sides of the arguments. Woodrow Wilson, then president of the college, represents the old school, interested in maintaining the status quo for the wealthy industrialists and unwilling to take a moral stand even when lynchings occur in the neighboring town. On the opposite side, Upton Sinclair has just published The Jungle, and he is held so in thrall by his socialist ideals that he can’t be bothered to attend to the needs of his wife and infant son. Mark Twain makes sporadic appearances as acerbic commentator.

The Accursed, I believe, is overly long. Some of its passages, however, are truly comical, as when the narrator describes an emergency conference called by President Wilson to talk about “the unspeakable”, and none of them knows what they’re talking about. (Nor does the reader, though it’s not hard to guess.) One of the faculty wives, who refers to herself as Poor Puss, is a professional invalid who relates her view of the Princeton Curse in her diary. But there are long passages dealing with physical and emotional misery that could stand some cuts here and there and still remain effective. This intricate book, the third in Ms. Oates’ gothic series, has been critically acclaimed by professional reviewers. If you want to know if the demons are real, or simply symptomatic of the characters’ collective feelings of guilt, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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