kccu

All The Varieties Of Love And Madness, On Display In 'Carthage'

Jan 23, 2014
Originally published on February 18, 2014 6:58 pm

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, Joyce Carol Oates has outdone herself. This year she will have brought out three books of fiction — a new volume of novellas this past autumn, a new book of stories coming out this spring, and just now a new novel, a feat that testifies to the prodigious nature of her imagination and the unstoppable force of her writing powers.

"Stop me before I write again," wrote the waggish critic James Wolcott more than 30 years ago, assailing Oates' work in Harper's. It seems as though he might have done better asking the ocean tides to slow, or trying to keep tectonic plates from colliding and creating earthquakes. I think most serious readers and writers have come to recognize that Joyce Carol Oates stands as our time's and our nation's seeming force of nature, a genius of a writer whose capacious production and lively pace of completion hark back to another century — that of Trollope and Henry James — even as they propel us, seat belts fastened, toward an uncertain future.

Certainly that's what Carthage, Oates' latest novel, brings to mind. Here, as in many of her other works of fiction, we encounter an American family in torment, in a small town in the wilds of upstate New York, people from whose turmoil and suffering we can learn a great deal about our own households and our own hearts. The town is Carthage, the wilds are the Nautauga Forest Preserve — "three hundred thousand acres of mountainous, boulder-strewn and densely wooded wilderness ... remote, uninhabitable and unreachable except by the most intrepid hikers and mountain climbers." And the family is the Mayfields — Zeno, the husband (a former mayor of the town), wife Arlette, and daughters Juliet and Cressida, whom Oates describes as "like the daughters of a fairy-tale king." All of them are caught up in the narrative of a disappearing girl and Brett Kincaid, Juliet's fiance, the Iraq war veteran who has returned to Carthage wounded in body and soul.

When the younger Mayfield girl, Cressida — a slight, rather androgynous creature who dropped out of college and returned home — incongruously throws herself at the wounded Brett, whatever glue seemed to hold the family together melts in the heat of violence. The police find Brett unconscious in his blood-spattered vehicle in the local forest preserve, and Cressida goes missing. The authorities decide Cressida has been murdered — a crime to which dazed and wounded veteran Brett confesses — and a huge search ensues.

Part of that search turns out to be the surprising second half of an already intriguing story that carries us from Carthage south to a prison tour in Florida. During the tour, an infamous American muckraker snaps secret photographs while his devoted young assistant gathers notes for his latest project, an expose of American punishment and crime. Exactly how these two major sections of the novel come together, like the aforementioned tectonic plates, I shouldn't reveal.

But I can point out that the prison guard who conducts the tour might, as Oates describes him, seem familiar in his approach. He's "an impresario at the mast of a careening amusement-park ride — roller coaster, demon-twister," whose "ghastly monologue had an air of being much recited, like a Shakespeare soliloquy in a void." There might be a metaphor or two here to help with understanding the feel of Oates' new novel. Roller coaster, demon-twister. Here she is, over 40 novels in, still throwing her shoulder again and again, trying to break down the door between us and the truth about family and the varieties of love and madness in American life.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The latest novel by novel Joyce Carol Oates, her 40th, has just been published. It's called "Carthage." Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says, like in much of Oates' other works of fiction, we encounter an American family in torment - this time in a small town in the upstate New York.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The town is Carthage, the wilds are the Nautauga State Forest Preserve, the family is the Mayfields - Zeno, the husband, a former mayor of the town, and wife Arlette, daughters Juliet and Cressida, whom Oates denotes as like the daughters of a fairy-tale king. And there's Brett Kincaid, Juliet's ex-fiancee, the Iraq War veteran who's returned to Carthage wounded in body and soul.

When Cressida the younger Mayfield girl - a small, rather androgynous creature who dropped out of college and returned home - incongruously throws herself at the wounded Brett, whatever glue seemed to hold the family together melts in the heat of violence. The police find Brett semi-conscious in his blood-spattered vehicle in the Forest Preserve and Cressida has gone missing. In the wake of her disappearance, which the authorities take to be a murder to which the dazed and wounded veteran confesses, a huge search ensues.

Making up part of that search is the surprising second half of an already intriguing story. It takes us on a prison tour in Florida where an infamous American muckraker takes secret photographs, while his devoted young assistant gathers notes for his latest project, an expose of American punishment and crime.

Exactly how these two major sections of this new novel come together, I won't reveal. But I can point out that the prison guard who conducts the tour - known in these pages as the lieutenant, as Oates describes him - seems familiar in his approach. He's an impresario at the mast of a careening amusement park ride - roller coaster, demon-twister.

Here she is, Joyce Carol Oats, in her 40the novel, still throwing her shoulder again and again, trying to break down the door between us and the truth about family and the varieties of love and madness in American life.

CORNISH: The book is "Carthage," written by Joyce Carol Oates, and reviewed for us by Alan Cheuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.