by Dwight Garner)
Joyce Carol Oates, now in her mid-70s, is the author of some 140 books — approximately two a year from the moment she was born. I half expect someday to learn that she kept a real-time journal of her eviction from the birth canal.
Those who would review an Oates novel, at this point, probably owe the reader an account of how much of this avalanche of print they’ve allowed themselves to be buried under rather than running away. So here goes mine.
I’ve read exactly four of her books (all of them novels) from cover to cover, and have listened to one more on audiotape. Two of these I’ve admired. “We Were the Mulvaneys,” from 1996, pulls you from shore like a riptide. Oprah was wise to claim it for her book club.
And the audiobook — of Ms. Oates’s novella “Black Water” (1992), loosely based on Edward M. Kennedy’s misadventure at Chappaquiddick — is read by the actress Amanda Plummer and casts a genuine moon-sick spell. I’ve been recommending this aesthetic experience to people for years.
The three others I’ve found either sudsy, silly and overwrought (“Blonde,” from 2000, and “Man Crazy,” from 1997) or sudsy, stagnant and overwrought (“The Falls,” from 2004). I’ve poked into many more of Ms. Oates’s novels and have put them aside, anticipating similar reactions.
My sense of Ms. Oates’s career is, in other words, very far from complete. Part of me feels I should go back and feast upon the books that are said to be her early classics — “them” (1969), for example, or “Bellefleur” (1980). Part of me knows that, having my eyes on different prizes, I probably will not.
This somewhat cool opening makes me wish that I could, with a flamenco dancer’s flourish, warm things up and report that Ms. Oates’s new novel, “Carthage,” is alive and soulful, with a freshness of purpose and attack. But it is mostly the opposite of all that.
It reads as if the author were on autopilot or, as James Wolcott suggested in Harper’s in a 1982 assessment of her work, writing in her sleep. Mr. Wolcott’s concluding plea echoes across the decades: “Snap to, Ms. Oates. It isn’t too late. Wake up, wake up, wake up!”
“Carthage” swims with Oatesian trademarks. There’s the upstate New York setting (check). There’s the blend of gothic mood and quotidian detail (check). There is the obsession with violence and sex-shame, and narratives from both “before” and “after” life-splitting events (check, check).
The central character in “Carthage” is a 19-year-old named Cressida Mayfield. She’s among the freakish sprites that pop up with some regularity (check) in Ms. Oates’s work. Cressida may lack supernatural powers, but she is so tightly wound that, like the heroine in Stephen King’s “Carrie,” you keep waiting for her to lose it and burn down the prom.
Bookish and miserable and asexual, Cressida is presented to us as if she were equal parts Emily Dickinson, Wednesday Addams and Gilly, the impish Kristen Wiig character from “Saturday Night Live.” Cressida is a boyish creature, “narrow-hipped, flat-chested” and with “frizzled hair like a dark aureole about her head.” When she laughs, she tends to “squinch up her face like a wicked little monkey.”
You would not want to sit next to Cressida in a movie theater. “Her laughter was high-pitched like a monkey’s chittering,” Ms. Oates writes. At another moment, we read of Cressida’s “shrill laughter like ice being shaken.” As someone who shakes ice almost every evening, I find this image equally implausible and disturbing.
A great deal of Cressida’s unhappiness comes from being the homely younger sister to Juliet, the radiant ex-prom queen of Carthage High School. Unlike Juliet, Cressida was not made for this world. She flinches when she hears rock music. She declines to eat, so as to thwart menstruation. When Juliet asks her to be the maid of honor at her wedding, Cressida intones cyborgishly: “Weddings are rituals in an extinct religion in which I don’t believe.” Then, I hope, she laughed like ice being shaken.
The plot in “Carthage” pivots around Cressida’s disappearance; she is perhaps the victim of a rape and murder. Much of the evidence points to her sister’s fiancé, a decorated Iraq war veteran with apparent post-traumatic stress disorder named Brett Kincaid. (These names! There’s a Zeno and a Genevieve and a Sabbath McSwain, as well. A better name for Cressida might have been Anemia.)
The point of view in this entirely humorless novel skips among Cressida, Juliet, Brett, and the girls’ parents. These characters’ many varieties of heartbreak are difficult to take seriously, because they often speak in dialogue that could have been lifted from a script for “Days of Our Lives,” circa 1974.
You can open this novel almost anywhere and find snippets like “Oh Brett I miss our special times together” or “God if I could trade my life for hers” or “Daddy has such plans for us!” More than once, Ms. Oates indicates fear in “Nancy Drew” (or “Scooby-Doo”) fashion, with a repeated consonant: “But if human beings have d-died in here — ” or “B-born?”
Themes and theses, rather than being intimated, are right in your face, like Mike Tyson’s tattoo. “She was beginning to wonder,” Cressida thinks to herself, hundreds of pages after the reader first had this notion, “if her behavior had been a primitive revenge for their failure to love her.”
Ms. Oates is a maximalist, a writer who tends to a story’s sweep rather than pausing to make finely cut sentences. But when a vivid image does pop up — a character’s “pebbly eyes,” for example, or the “ghost-fingers” of wind through someone’s hair — it can arrive with a sense of déjà vu.
You go back to Ms. Oates previous work and find similar pebbly eyes in “The Falls,” ghost fingers of a different sort in a recent story collection, “The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares.” This is an utter misdemeanor — writers of every stripe will occasionally fall back on a resonant bit of language. But when your prose has relatively few memorable images, repeats stick out.
There are many references in “Carthage” to magical spells and fairy tales and children’s storybooks. It made me want to flee back into the adult world, pry open a window and gulp the open air.
By Joyce Carol Oates
482 pages. Ecco. $26.99.