Quiet America is a hotbed of seething secrets and people you don’t know at all. At least that’s what one gathers after reading novels set in seemingly bucolic locales. All it needs is one unexpected thing to break the surface, and it all comes gushing out.
That’s something that prolific American fictionist Joyce Carol Oates knows well, as she likes poking at the dark matter within perfect families.
Oates’ 42nd novel (she has more than 130 books to her name), “Carthage” (Ecco, New York, 2014, 482 pages) touches on some of that, but also introduces a narrative shell game of questions.
After all, “Carthage” begins not with a dead body, but a missing girl. The Mayfields are one of Cathage’s prominent families, with patriarch Zeno, the former mayor who’s a big man about town, his loyal wife Arlette and eldest daughter Juliet a universally adored beauty.
But when their precocious teenage daughter Cressida fails to come home, the Mayfields’ home life and the town’s collective sense of security is thrown into wounding disarray.
While Carthage’s volunteers—led by an almost-crazy Zeno—scour the forest and river for any sign of Cressida Oates probes the town’s take on the sisters, in particular their differences—outgoing, popular Juliet was always “the pretty one” and the sarcastic, moody Cressida was “the smart one.”
Carthage’s gossip rises to an obsessive new level when the authorities identify their prime suspect behind Cressida’s disappearance: Juliet’s former fiancé, Brett Kincaid.
The once-besotted Kincaid had returned from his second tour in Iraq a scarred and traumatized man. While Carthage treated him as a war hero, he shunned others, even breaking off his engagement with Juliet. Now he has been found bloodied and muttering, identified as the last man seen with Cressida.
All this drives the Mayfields to near self-destruction, with Oates delving deeply into each family member’s motivations and weaknesses as the search for Cressida stretches on and a kind of resigned darkness falls over Carthage.
At this point, Oates seems content to irritate the wounds of the townspeople, and “Carthage” seems like just any other small-town murder mystery. It isn’t.
Early in the novel’s second act, Oates inserts a mind-blowing twist that changes “Carthage” completely. Oates does more than insert that twist; she stabs the reader with it and then turns it until the reader can’t take it anymore.
From this point on, “Carthage” grimly continues in almost predictable but ever painful manner as Oates returns to the scattered Mayfield family, torn apart by the fallout of Cressida’s vanishing, and to Kincaid, who had confessed to the police that he has killed Cressida and is now behind bars, though still tormented by what he experienced in Iraq.
“Carthage” is a difficult book to read because of how Oates turns the characters’ fears and needs over and over in her narrative hand. There is artistry in her book’s complexity, and Oates will have the readers needing to know how it all ends.
“Carthage” ends with exactly what readers expect—but now how or why. In particular, “Carthage” reflects on the idea of victimhood. All the characters are essentially victims in different ways, but the book also presents a bracing, unflattering portrait of Cressida that shows not only how much she has suffered but also how she has caused suffering.
The novel questions whether forgiving and moving on are the same as forgetting and giving up. By the time readers get to the breathless conclusion, they would already have been traumatized and mesmerized by the dark, twisted path leading there.
The wound Joyce Carol Oates left in the readers’ gut will continue to fester long the reading, as “Carthage” turns from whodunit to a what-happened kind of book, a truly complicated study of grief and guilt.
Available in hardcover from National Book Store.