Culture

Joyce Carol Oates
Carthage

In Nowheresville, USA, a place of dying towns, underwater mortgages and a recovery that never happened, a young woman goes missing. Her disappearance throws relationships into chaos, as suspicion wheels and turns, exposing human frailty and duplicity. It sounds like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and it is. But it is also Carthage, the latest novel from Joyce Carol Oates, as we go to press.

Carthage is the name of the town from which 19-year-old Cressida Mayfield goes missing on a Saturday night, down at the biker bar by the lake. The daughter of a controversial one-time mayor, she was last seen, maybe, in the company of her sister Juliet’s ex-fiancé, an Afghanistan vet maimed to such a degree that Juliet couldn’t follow through with the nuptials. From there, we’re provided with a far more adept exploration than Flynn could manage of the inner thoughts of a family struck by catastrophe, and the nature of guilt and knowledge.

However, while Carthage is more expansive than Flynn’s bestseller, it is also less suspenseful – it aims to be more than a thriller, and becomes less than thrilling. Like most non-crime-genre writers, Oates moves the plot at half-speed and is light on the twists, whammies and kazams that would keep you reading. That wouldn’t matter if she managed to summon up the benighted world of upstate New York where this all takes place; Manhattan just a few hours, and a whole other life, away. But Carthage is dominated by reported thoughts in telegrammatic style, with barely a dozen paragraphs of sustained worldly description; we float, suspended, in a world we do not know.

That too has a purpose in the end, and many have praised the book’s intensity of atmosphere. This reviewer can’t help but feel short-changed, especially as Oates is a crime-genre writer, with a dozen thrillers forming part of her near-100 book oeuvre (under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly). Oates is on record as objecting to the obsession with her profligacy, asking why it matters if you write slow or fast. Perhaps it’s because speed is not of the matter’s essence. Many authors write 100 books, except as 10 drafts of 10 novels, a process doubtless not undertaken to produce Oates’s latest work. She has captured the world of a place like Carthage in books such as You Must Remember This, but not here. Carthago delenda, I’m afraid.  XS

HarperCollins, 400pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage". Subscribe here.