MICHAEL DIRDA IS not a reviewer whose advice I normally heed, but I was just finishing up an independent study with three enthusiastic students of the classic Gothic novels when he praised both this and Oates's latest, Carthage, in the NYRB, quoting Stephen King's opinion that The Accursed is "the world's finest postmodern Gothic novel."
I was unlikely ever to be better positioned to appreciated a Gothic novel, for one thing, and since Oates is a "major American writer" according to Dirda and quite a few other people, it was high time I read one of her books, no? So, The Accursed it was.
Oates is, so far as I can tell, not a big deal in my (essentially academic) world; certainly not as big a deal as Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, who outgun her 3- or 4-to-1 in an EBSCO peer-reviewed article search, nor as big a deal in the MFA world as Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, Thomas Bernhard, and so on. She gets admiring reviews and sells well, but she does not get assigned at the pace that even Sandra Cisneros does. Is academia unfair to JCO?
Not so unfair as all that, I would answer, on the basis of this novel...which was interesting enough to finish, though, and that is saying something at 667 pages. A mysterious evil plagues the leading families of the village of Princeton, NJ, in 1905-06, and one gradually susses that straight white elite class males, complacently wallowing in unexamined privilege since 1776, are inclined to interpret the mounting claims of women, the working class, ethnic minorities, gays, and other marginalized folks as demonic possession, an evil fit that has to be valiantly combated but will eventually pass. No such luck, as the subsequent history of the 20th century will show.
A really good idea--but a 600+ idea? It wore a little thin at that length, I thought. For one thing, most of the book is narrated by local historian M. W. Van Dyck, to whom Oates has given a Polonius-like rotundity of phrase and intellectual vapidity that is, while appropriate, wearying unto death. I needed frequent breaks from the prose of Mr. Van Dyck. For another thing, Upton Sinclair's writing of The Jungle is loosely knit into the novel, and Oates's vision of Sinclair seemed to me several degrees less insightful than of Chris Bachelder in U.S.!
I should probably read another Oates (one of the realistic ones--but which?) before I permanently assign her to my personal reader's limbo of don't-bother, but next time I need a dollop of American Gothic, it's Shirley Jackson for me.