The OF Blog: Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage

In Carthage, there are some people who do not "support" the war – the wars.  But they support our troops, they make that clear.

Daddy has always made that clear.

Daddy respects you.  Daddy is just awkward now, he doesn't know how to talk to you but that's how some men are.  He was never a soldier himself and has strong feelings about the Vietnam War which was the war when he was growing up.  But Daddy does not mean anything personal.

You have said It's a toss of the dice.  You have said Who gives a shit who lives, who dies.  A toss of the dice. 

I know you don't mean this.  This is not Brett speaking but the other. (p. 26)

In the past few years, several novels have been released that have touched upon some aspects of the 2001-present Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  If there were one thing in common about them, it would be a focus on the individual soldier, of supporting him/her, with the reasoning behind those conflicts mostly left unaddressed, at least not directly.  In her latest novel, Carthage, Joyce Carol Oates takes a crack at addressing post-conflict trauma, but she also broadens her topic to include familial strife and grief.  It is a novel that begins slowly, yet around the beginning of the second part, almost 200 pages in, the story shifts in surprising and yet ultimately moving ways.

There are two lost, suffering souls at the heart of the novel.  One is Cressida Mayfield, the 19 year-old younger sister of the former prom queen.  She is introspective and cynical, trying to find her own way in life.  One night on a trail near her upstate New York home in 2005, she meets up with her sister Juliet's former fiancé, the recently-discharged Corporal Brett Kincaid, who himself has been suffering from PTSD.  What happens that night is a mystery; Cressida turns up missing and when questioned, Kincaid confesses to murdering her.  Told through the viewpoint of the Mayfield family members and Kincaid in alternating PoV chapters, the first part explores the traumas of Cressida's apparent violent end.

Oates does an excellent job in establishing each character's personality; their shortcomings and failures to understand (with one notable exception) Cressida's struggles are dissected with sharp, ironic commentary.  As each person supposedly close to Cressida talks of their lives with Cressida being on the margins, a more complex, composite image of town and family life emerges.  Added to this are Kincaid's chapters, in which his recent military past is shown to have broken him, making him a living ruin of a person.  It is a devastating portrayal of a traumatized soldier and Oates does not play this up too much for theatrical effect.  Instead, Kincaid's suffering will ultimately be a mirror for what Cressida has undergone.

The second part inverts much of the first section's examinations of the Mayfield family and Kincaid.  It is set seven years later and focuses on a Florida woman who suddenly has a traumatic experience when she enters into a prison's death row with her new boss, a special investigator.  It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal the specifics of her case, but it begins a series of redemptive episodes that culminates in a powerful series of conversations and revelations.  The work Oates put into developing her characters and their motivations pays off with one of the more moving and yet ambiguous concluding chapters that I have read this year.

Carthage succeeds mostly due to its combination of well-drawn characters and a plot that contains a surprising twist.  Oates' prose is excellent, as each sentence feels important in either developing character or scene.  There is a surprising economy of words for a novel that is nearly 500 pages long.  While at first it takes several pages to establish Cressida's disappearance, by the time the immediate aftermath is reached, the reader is sucked in, trying to figure out not only just what really happened that night, but also how this is going to affect her parents, sister, and Kincaid.  Oates uses PoV chapters very adroitly, never lingering overmuch on a particular character.  This creates a semblance of plot progression even when most of this progression is internal character development and not external events.  The end result is one of the more moving portrayals of trauma and grief that I have read this year.

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