Joyce Carol Oates has become America's literary psychoanalyst. Her books plunge directly into the darkest, most terrifying corners of our individual and cultural psyches. Now in her 70s, she has written scores of novels, ranging from quick (but never light) mysteries to flat-out masterpieces.
"Carthage" is among her finest. Both irresistible page-turner and heady intellectual experience, it's a good choice if you're curious about Oates but can't decide where to start in her intimidating and uneven canon.
It tells the story of an upstate New York family undone by two tragedies. The fiancé of the older sister, Juliet, returns from Iraq with a face and body wrecked by fire and metal and a mind wracked by shock and guilt. Then the family's younger sister, bright but antisocial Cressida, disappears.
Very soon, these events are linked. The morning after Cressida was seen leaving a bar with Brett, he is discovered passed out in his pickup in a nature preserve. Cressida's blood is found in the truck. He confesses to killing her — or is he hallucinating? Or remembering something from Iraq?
It would do the book a disservice to describe what happens next. The story is told in flashbacks and switchbacks, and from several points of view. Oates does not wrap up everything tidily, but rather allows each character's drama to play out as it might in real life.
And what characters! Cressida, the troubled teen whose story faintly echoes Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," goes out of her way to be nasty, particularly to her parents and sweet sister Juliet. And yet there are layers to Cressida, and while she is never likable, she wins our sympathy during her gradual realization that she has been her own worst enemy, just when it may be too late. Brett, a wreck of a man, is equally multidimensional, all struggle and shame and pride.
Both are severely damaged, Cressida by her limited emotional range (and the choices she makes), Brett by cruel circumstance (and the choices he makes). Still, we witness some limited, torturous healing in both. The novel's ending is a heartbreaker, yet perhaps the closest an Oates story has come to a hopeful resolution.
Oates is a brilliant writer, but like most of her books, this one appears dashed off. By now we know that this is her way, but we can't help but wish that at least in a book like this, she had made one more pass through to toss out clichés, the breathless, the windy.
Despite such irritations, this is a brilliant novel, perhaps better than even last year's highly acclaimed "The Accursed." Sloppy or not, Oates continues to make her mark as one of the greatest American writers of our time.
Pamela Miller is the Star Tribune's west metro team leader.