Joyce Carol Oates is often heralded as the Queen of American Gothic, at least of modern days writers. Recently she has focused her efforts on short stories and editing collections of others’ short stories. This offering is a hefty novel that she began working on nearly 30 years ago while living near Princeton, NJ.
Set in 1905, on the campus of the storied Ivy League campus, the narrative bounces between its privileged residents. Woodrow Wilson is president of the college (not yet president of the US) and he is dealing with rival administrator Andrew West. Excerpts of the diary of Mrs. Adelaide McLean Burr (related to Aaron Burr) reveal a troubled woman whose view on the strange events is unlikely to be trustworthy. The actions of Upton Sinclair intersperse the chapters. But the main characters are Josiah and Annabel Slade. The brother and sister seem to be at the center of bizarre happenings in the area.
Oates (barely) advances the story with vague, uneasy scenes like these:
Though the men certainly could not have been described as struggling together, in any sense of the phrase, it somehow happened that, as Winslow Slade sought to take hold of Woodrow Wilson’s (flailing) arm, to calm him, the younger man shrank from him as if in fright; causing the jade snuffbox to slip from his fingers onto a tabletop, and a cloud of aged snuff was released, of such surprising potency both men began to sneeze; very muh as if a malevolent spirit had escaped from the little box.
Unexpectedly then, both Woodrow Wilson and Winslow Slade suffered fits of helpless sneezing, until they could scarcely breathe, and their eyes brimmed with tears, and their hearts pounded with a lurid beat eager to burst.
And the austere old grandfather clock against a farther wall softly chimed the surprising hour of one — unheard. Pg. 44
The book is just under 700 pages long and it is slow going. I slogged through it, in hopes that once the complex background of characters is set that something would happen. Instead there are only the occasional references to something happening somewhere else. Still, I was determined to finish the book. Perhaps there would be an amazing twist that would bring it all into focus. But on page 321, I understood what Dorothy Parker meant when she said “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly — it should be thrown with great force.” Two characters are having an exchange about deductive reasoning and Sherlock Holmes is discussed. As a Holmes fanatic, I was pretty excited. Then this happened….
“Recall, the ‘mysterious behavior’ of the Hound of the Baskervilles, that did not bark as it might have been expected to bark? In this case, the Wilsons’ portly greyhound Hannibal — (which the undergraduates call ‘Box-on-Legs) — behaved in a more conventional canine fashion by howling inexplicably — and very loudly — in the night, upon several occasions just last week.” Pg. 321
What is known as the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time” is NOT from The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is from “Silver Blaze.” The stablemaster John Straker is known to the dog and therefore does not bark, despite the horseman’s nefarious plans. Just to make sure that this would not become character flaw that is pointed out later, I gritted my teeth and read on. To no avail. I read about another 20 pages, but I couldn’t justify reading any more of it when there are just so many books in my TBR pile.
As the Queen of the Modern Gothic, Oates should have known better. And if she didn’t, her editors should have caught it. I suppose there is a slight chance that the character is corrected later — and if anyone who has read it knows, please leave a comment.
Otherwise, I say skip this one.
Many thanks to Ecco for the review copy.
On Sale: 3/5/2013
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Ages: 18 and Up