Joyce Carol Oates, one of our most respected writers of the last few decades, and I was disappointed by The Accursed, the first of her books I have read. I have little good to say about the book except that it is somewhat entertaining. Only somewhat entertaining; not enough for me to recommend the book to a friend.
The book is part historical novel and part Gothic thriller in the Dracula mode. I think that Oates did not well mix the two genres. I was left wondering at times if what I was reading was fact or fiction. For example, the book describes an extramarital relationship in 1906 between Woodrow Wilson and a Mrs. Peck:
As five of the controversial “Mrs. Peck” letters are extant, and determined by reputable Wilson scholars to be in his hand, the passion of Woodrow Wilson for this mysterious woman is no longer any secret.
I cannot tell if the above if fact or fiction. Oates includes a short bibliography at the end of the book the includes a number of works on Woodrow Wilson, but provides no guidance on how to determine what in her book is historical fact. As a work of historical fiction, many renowned figures appear as characters. Oates depicts them all negatively. Here is what the narrator of the novel says about Mark Twain:
. . . the much-acclaimed American man of letters was known for the eccentricities of his humor, and often behaved wantonly, and cruelly
Other characters are Upton Sinclair, Teddy Roosevelt, Jack London, all of whom are depicted unfavorably. I have no objection whatsoever to writing about the shortcomings of historical figures; the best historians never shirk from doing so. This novel however seems to show only bad characteristics. There are a couple of exceptions. Wilson eventually shows great strength of character by resisting making a Faustian bargain with one of the novel’s villains. Upton Sinclair, although naive and unworldly and who abandons his wife and child, is nonetheless sincere about his socialist principles and acts on them.
I was left with no good feelings about this novel. I found the Gothic elements somewhat perverse which I suppose was the author’s intent. There are no redeeming aspects of the novel that I am aware of.