Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hank Enjoyed This Curious Feat of Storytelling
Following her period piece The Accursed, set in a mythical version of Princeton, Oates returns to the familiar territory of her semi-fictional take on contemporary northern New York in her new novel Carthage. I've probably been to, or more to the point through, real Carthage during my years growing up in the region, but I don't have a specific recollection. That's probably OK; aside from its proximity to wilderness areas of the Adirondacks, it serves as a nondescript Everytown in this story of events precipitated by the disappearance of a young woman.

Points of view shift, as we learn about the circumstances leading up to the... crime? Foul play seems certainly to be the likeliest explanation, but even within the traumatized mind of the Iraq War vet who is the primary suspect, his status as Unreliable Narrator casts doubt on what really happened. Lacking more than the sketchiest of evidence, he ends up confessing to the... crime? and being incarcerated.

But, it's never as simple as that, in Oates's world. The middle part of the book explores her recurring fascination with the twin odysseys of personality and identity in a deeper way than debatably anything she's written since Wonderland, over 40 years ago. To reveal more about this curious feat of storytelling would be a disservice to readers.

Ultimately, we return to pick up the threads of the aftermath of a... crime? without adequate closure, and the disparate ways people handle Not Really Knowing. The vivid description of "The Long Wall" drivers arriving in the real-life prison town of Dannemora experience evoked a strong memory of the one time I passed through, quite different from general-purpose Carthage. It's kind of an alternate-route town, if that isn't your destination. The story ends in a startling truncation I found somewhat unsatisfying, with an imminent development on the brink of happening. While it can be fun to engage readers in using their own imaginations to fill in the blanks, I would have been more interested to know what Oates thinks is going to happen next. I really didn't have any particular theory, even though I liked going along for the ride, as far as it went.


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