Joyce Carol Oates’s brilliant, weirdly structured new novel presents some problems for a reviewer who wants to persuade people to read it. First, the book contains some blow-the-top-of-your-head-off twists that would be immoral and unfair to reveal. Second, and more problematically, the somewhat-slow first hundred pages give no hint of just how surprising and amazing the novel is going to be.
“Carthage” appears to start out as a fairly standard mystery procedural. A 19-year-old college freshman, Cressida Mayfield, is missing, possibly lost in the Nautauga State Forest Preserve. As the search for her fans out through the park, it becomes clear that foul play may be involved. Cressida was last seen in the company of her older sister’s ex-fiance, a troubled veteran of the war in Iraq who suffered severe injuries both physically and psychologically. But he claims not to remember exactly what happened.
If this seems like the plot to a moderately engaging television show that you might come across on a cable channel one night, well, yes, that is how it seems. There are clues revealed and family secrets uncovered, but a reader may begin to wonder how Oates is going to manage to stretch this familiar material into a 500-page novel. (Answer: she’s not.)
Readers also may find themselves puzzled by the author’s tone in these opening chapters, for she turns the full force of her famous Ironic Gaze upon the missing girl’s hapless family. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Oates is her ability to express hatred for her characters. It is a righteous, merciless hatred, such as a smart, sensitive adolescent feels for complacency, platitudes, self-deception, the lies and corruption of the world, the stupidity of adults and those in charge — in short, the kind of outrage that burns away for most of us in our mid-20s. But this is an emotion Oates can still summon and make use of. It can be a powerful, bracing tool, and she has wielded it to stunning effect in books such as “Black Water” and stories such as “Is Laughter Contagious?” where her pitilessness is a scalpel that lays bare the smugness and hollowness at the heart of America’s privileged and comfortable.
But is this the right tool to direct against the poor Mayfield family? The father, Zeno, is a relatively good-hearted lawyer and former mayor of Carthage; the mother, Arlette, is a placid and conventional suburbanite; the older sister, Juliet, is a goody-goody prom queen type, defenseless against the gale winds of the novel’s scorn. No need for a scalpel for Juliet — Oates just throws aside the shower curtain and starts stabbing. “I am your fiancee,” Juliet simpers to her post-traumatically stressed future husband. “Your bride-to-be.” And then, in what appears to be a parody of girliness, she gushes about the wedding dress she got at “Bonnie Bell Designs.”
It seems a bit like overkill — seems so, at least, until the reader reaches the end and gets to see what this clever, twisty author has been up to.
In any case, just as we may be growing a bit weary of examining the Mayfields like ants under a magnifying glass, the novel takes its first of several head-spinning turns. We shift point of view, and abruptly we’re inside the disturbed mind of the ex-fiance veteran, Brett Kincaid. “He was prone to seeing things not-there,” we learn, “and hearing things not-there since the explosion inside his head,” and this section is a tour-de-force of sympathetic engagement. The novel takes us deep into the scattered, free-associative thought process of a brain-injured veteran who is struggling to distinguish current interrogations from past ones, his fractured memories of the missing girl from his nightmarish remembrances of a girl he saw murdered in Iraq. Brett was once a golden boy of the complacent world that Oates often satirizes: “How earnestly Brett had spoken,” Zeno Mayfield thinks, recalling the going-away party they’d thrown after Brett had enlisted, “and how handsome he’d been in his U.S. Army dress uniform. . . . [Zeno’s] heart had clenched in disdain and dread as he’d thought Oh Jesus. Watch out for this poor dumb kid.”
But Brett returns to his home town a shattered spirit, furious, violent, confused, a creature of the gothic underbelly where Oates’s sympathies most often lie: abused children, misfit teenagers, tortured losers — the various monsters that nice people like the Mayfields don’t have to confront.
Then, just as we settle in for a dark and hair-raising ride through the perspective of Brett Kincaid, the novel takes yet another startling hairpin turn. We jump eight years into the future and a thousand miles to the South, to a tour of a maximum security prison in South Florida. And the novel slyly pivots around to look at us, removes its mask and grins, revealing a set of sharp teeth. That’s all I will tell you — that this is a novel that transforms itself, and then transforms itself once more, and when we arrive at last back in Carthage to see the Mayfield family once again, they have been utterly changed, and the novel’s first picture of them has been transmuted as well.
A compassionate tenderness suffuses the final sections of the book, as palpable as the cold irony with which the book begins. It’s a breathtaking effect, and the opening and ending create a kind of mobius strip — not unlike the Escher-inspired drawings that Cressida creates when she’s in high school: “As the figures passed through the metamorphoses from left to right their ‘whiteness’ shaded into ‘darkness’ — like negatives; then, as negatives, as they passed through reverse stages of metamorphoses, they became ‘white’ again.”
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco. 482 pp. $26.99