Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates (JCO) is a 2014 publication that Amazon reports has 769 pages. Other platforms report more than 600 pages; this is a long book. So how could it be a page-turner and impossible to put down novel to be read in one session? It worked for me as I fended off the annoying lab technicians that wanted to briefly interrupt my reading for their micro-invasions. I can read in a hospital, but I can’t write a review, so after finishing this novel a couple of days ago, I had time to reflect and reread favorite passages. Thanks, Doc. And thanks to the author for getting me through depressing times. There is a lot of irony in that this novel is more depressing than not. For me, it is a solid five star read and bring on the pluses as they become available. The only shocking feature I found about this novel were negative reviews.
For the first time, I responded to an author review. The reviewer rated the book at one star and heaped negativity on all parts, themes, and issues addressed. My comment to the reviewer (paraphrased) was “I have never read such a well-written review that I completely disagreed with.” J. C. Oates is a superb writer. How can readers reliably ascribe to her a political agenda? I am sure she has one, but I don’t care. The book is presented as it is. It is a good story. What if JCO were playing the devil’s advocate and writing entertainment from a POV that she didn’t own? I find criticism recommending not reading the story because it might damage a reader’s worldview incredibly condescending. Reviewers such as the one I read occupy higher strata of intelligence (I guess). I appreciate the reviewer’s concern for my mental development, but I am going to read more by Joyce Carol Oates.
Character development is frequently judged in deciding whether the novel is ready for prime time. JCO develops some characters but does not fully develop a couple of main characters. She explores them at length, and this makes sense in the story context. Cressida is a fractured, unusual main character. Brett Kendall became a fractured, unusual main character. Neither are nor could be fully developed, but they can be explored as the two follow very different journeys in search of their realities. Family members of Brett and Cressida are more fully developed. All other characters are unimportant. Except for the Professor; he deserves his book. In this novel, the professor serves an essential function in Cressida’s life, but I would still like to see him in a separate book. The Professor has lots of potential.
Brett grew up as an average teenager; he was a famous sports figure in high school. When the US was attacked, Brett accepted that he would fight in the Army over there so they would not come over here. That worked well for the first tour; when he returned to girlfriend Juliette, the older sister of Cressida, Brett was your normal hero. But Brett returned to the war zone and saw things incomprehensible to his upbringing. Gratuitous torture and killing of civilians filled his dreams because he had seen them in real life. Then came an attack on Brett personally. Left with one eye, burned skin, and a limp, he resembled the Frankenstein monster. Juliette devoted herself to helping her fiancé. The wedding was still on. Brett’s nightmares got worse; he could no longer tell which of them had occurred in the war zone and which were prompting his violent urges now that he had returned home. An obscure incident occurs between Brett and Juliette. It is not clear which of the two called off the wedding. As far as character exploration, it is essential to note that Brett was the definition of normal, especially before the breakup with Juliette, Brett is fragmented, uncharted territory.
In a type of contrast, Cressida was always, from the moment of sentience, a dark, negative, depressed, and fragmented person. She was miles ahead of Brett in darkness but a lot younger in physical age. And she was in love with Brett. All her life, Cressida had occupied fourth place in a family of four. Mama Arlette loved Judith best and looked askance at any behavior of Cressida. Judith was beautiful and well behaved. Cressida all her life noticed that males could not figure out if she, Cressida, were male or female. Cressida did not care that no one could understand her behavior and world outlook. She thought life’s inequalities and injustices evident and would not explain them, considering everyone else stupid. Cressida had a unique understanding and relationship (nothing sexual) with her father. Her father could always be counted on to appreciate and support her unless Arlette and Judith demanded he agree with them in decisions about Cressida’s future. Cressida could find nothing stable, nothing to build herself on because Judith had taken it all.
As far as Cressida was concerned, Judith had abandoned Brett, and it was now Cressida’s turn. Taking advantage of a chance evening meeting, Cressida made her romantic, sexual move on Brett. The timing could have been better. It seems this was one of the times Brett felt threatened, and Brett eliminates threats. Covering Cressida’s eyes with dirt and beginning a shallow grave seemed a good start. Was it back in the war, or was it today? That was the confusion that defined Brett. Awakened the following day with blood evidence and signs of a struggle, the police arrested Brett. Cressida’s body was never found.
Brett had no idea of what had happened. He needed punishment for all Brett thought happened while at war, so Brett might as well confess to killing Cressida also. And so things ended with Brett becoming comfortable at Dannemora Correctional Facility. At least they had not given him the death sentence (no body found), but this annoyed Brett more than made him happy. He needed to be punished.
As readers explore the mystery of the eventual fate of Cressida and Brett, JCO goes on to write about issues in a way that seems to irritate reviewers. Oates looks at the Innocence Project. I remember when it started, and I didn’t like it. I am now a supporter of the Project, but I continue to pass on the TV series. JCO also looks at life inside prison and the ways that a prisoner’s punishment includes more than the subtraction of rights and physical comforts. There are the Guards. You can dress them up and call them Corrections Officers or any form of law enforcement official, but these folks are the security guards of law enforcement. Frequently ill-trained, frequently corrupt, but always correct when it came to dealings with prisoners. My first year as a Sheriff’s Deputy needed to be spent in a facility like the one described by JCO. Her descriptions are accurate.
Oates looks at the dissolution of families when tragedy strikes. Yes, Brett was a great guy, and it was a tragedy that occurred. Father Zeno was proud of his daughter Juliette as she continued to express loyalty to the disfigured returned veteran. Zeno was an influential and respected figure of the community until the disappearance of Cressida. Town gossips tore his life apart as they speculated on the evils of the lothario Brett. Why hadn’t Zeno protected his family better? Arlette stayed with Zeno for a few years, but the marriage was doomed. Zeno had to deal with the tragedy in a typically male way; he bought a bigger corkscrew and drank a lot more.
There are several pithy quotes by characters that are perfect to describe life’s little surprises. Read the novel so you can feel good about finding them. Discuss the story in a book club setting; a book this size was made for discussion.
There are other long novels by JCO, and I will choose another of her publications to get through the days ahead. If you have never read, Joyce Carol Oates, do not put off reading just because of page count. JCO stories are excellent.
I read Carthage on Scribd so this review will not appear on Amazon. Some of the reviews on Amazon for Carthage are fun to read.