Saturday, April 26, 2014

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To be brought up in a family that reads, can anyone be more fortunate? My mom introduced me to Joyce Carol Oates more years ago than I care to imagine. I consider Ms. Oates to be the female incarnation of Philip Roth, and though I read that she's retiring next year from teaching at the young age of 75, I doubt very much that she'll ever follow Roth into retirement from writing. Writing must be like breathing to her.

I've had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Oates and hearing her speak at conferences. The disconnect between what you see in person and what you get on the page is so great as to be almost laughable. This fragile-appearing, delicate woman with a wisp of a voice is so powerful and passionate in her writing that it takes your breath away. Her latest novel, "Carthage," is one more in a lengthy line of works that reach the heights of Greek tragedy.

Upstate New York is a familiar landscape for Oates and the fictional Carthage could be any one of those towns whose names harken back to the myths of Syracuse, Utica or Troy. Perhaps the myth is that growing up in these supposedly idyllic small towns is as peaceful as depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting.

The perfect Mayfield family consists of Zeno, the former mayor of Carthage, his lovely wife Arlette, and daughters, Juliet, the pretty one, and Cressida, the difficult one, over-sensitive, moody, unsociable, maybe even on the autism spectrum.

Brett Kincaid is engaged to marry the sunny one, Juliet, a school teacher, an eternal optimist. But then, 9/11. Small town hero wannabe, just like the Tom Cruise character in  the devastating film, "Born on the Fourth of July," Brett signs up for duty in Iraq.

Oates opens her novel after Kincaid has returned, physically maimed and psychologically broken. With every fiber of her being she has written into Brett Kincaid her own horror of war and its inevitable outcome. How, she asks, can we expect to train impressionable young men in the violent ways of warfare and not have that violence turned back on us?

When Brett ends his engagement to Juliet, Cressida sees an opportunity to join forces with him. After all, shouldn't two outcasts, different from the others in Carthage, choose to be together, to help each other, to combine their darker natures? Brett and Cressida ride out into the woods together after an alcohol fueled conversation at a local biker bar. In the morning, the police find Brett asleep in his blood splattered jeep on the side of the road. They don't find Cressida.

One would think that shared grief would draw loved ones closer together but life teaches us that this is seldom the case. Hounded by the news media, in shock, anger, and sorrow, the Mayfields, once a proud Carthage family, begin to disintegrate before our eyes, as they slowly face the fact that Brett must have killed their younger daughter.

This is a remarkable novel. There's no doubt in my mind that Joyce Carol Oates will one day walk away with the ultimate prize for literature that has so far eluded her. Through the prism of the Mayfield family she manages to lay bare the heart of our broken prison system, the horror of solitary confinement, and the futility of the death penalty.

She examines love in its many iterations, the ebb and flow of a marriage strained to the breaking point, and the difficult relationship of two sisters, thrown together by the accident of birth, but with no common ground upon which to build a friendship.

She writes of faith and the lack of it, the ability of some to forgive and the complete inability in others. This novel is honest and raw and Shakespearean in heft. What more can I say? To get a feel for JCO and the depth and breadth of her writing, click here.


Anonymous said...

I recently read this great novel. Hadn't read any of her books since "We Were the Mulvaneys" (1996). Enjoyed it even though it was chilling and unsettling in spots. I am a renewed JCO fan. -GD

Sallyb said...

So happy to hear it, GD. It would be about impossible to keep up with all of her work. I lead a book discussion on the Mulvaneys, but another one I especially enjoyed was "Middle Age; A Romance." (2001)