Accursed (Review)

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The Accursed
Joyce Carol Oates, 2013
688 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May, 2013
Over the past number of years, I'd grown wary of Joyce Carol Oates—with her characters and plots bordering on the grotesque. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up The Accursed.

Well, here again are her usual grotesqueries, this time placed in a historical context, with a gothic setting, and fantasy-thriller plotline—and all of it so mesmerizing it was difficult to put the book down.

The story takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the town of Princeton, New Jersey—back then an enclave for the very, very wealthy. Although replete with historical characters, the novel centers on the fictional Slade family—in particular, the patriarch Winslow, his bachelor son Josiah, and his beautiful daughter Annabel, soon to be wed. The Slades are stalwarts of the Princeton social elite—in fact, are at its very center.

Shortly before Annabel's wedding, two strange incidents occur, which our intrusive and fussy narrator informs us are the first manifestations of "the Curse." The Curse—an "ever-increasing and totally mysterious disaster"—will run its course unabated for 14 months, heaping destruction upon the Slade family and others who find themselves in its path.

Shape-shifting men, ineffably handsome to some and toad-like to others; an irresistible, siren-like woman; an invisible palace tucked away in a murky bog; statues that come alive and living beings transmuted into statues make up the Fantastic in an otherwise realistic world. Oates seems to be having fun.

Yet she demands we take her seriously. The Realism part of her story tells of racially inspired lynchings, anti-Semitic murders, and vile indifference to the plight of the working class, including and especially child labor. These are the ills of society—all of which are not simply tolerated but, indeed, perpetuated by Princeton's upper classes. Not only do they own stock in the very companies that treat workers as chattel, but they take pride in their sense of entitlement.

In due time, we come to learn the origins of the Curse. It would be unfair to spoil that discovery here. But suffice it to say that Oates asks us to ponder the nature of evil and the consequences of ignoring wrong-doing.

In many ways, The Accursed reads like a fable. Its near fairytale conclusion, if anything, leaves us with a "moral-to-the-story." If I have a criticism, it's that the book needed a strong editor; even more, the connections between the manifestations and the cause of the Curse remain somewhat murky. But as always, Oates is a powerful writer, funny and brilliant in turn. She makes us think.

This is not an easy book, but if book clubs are willing, it's worth—well worth—the effort. In the midst of a captivating story, Oates tackles the big questions: what is evil and how do we confront it, individually and collectively. Doesn't get bigger than that.

See our Reading Guide for The Accursed.


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