How to read The Accursed

If you have an interest in reading The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, but worry about how long the damn thing is (and it is long), relax: I'm going to give you a guide on how to read it more quickly, and still get a lot out of it. Because it really is worth reading.

The book is partly a historical novel and partly a historical gothic horror. On a prose level, Oates always has it going on, and even slowly paced scenes keep you reading. No problems there. And both the historical novel part and the gothic romance part are great.

I just don't think they fit together very well, and the result is a book that is just too long. I happen to think that the gothic horror part is much more fun, consistent, and effective. If you want to read just that part, then skip most places there is a name you recognize from history.  The only possible exception to this is Woodrow Wilson, and I'll get to him in a minute.

The first thing to skip are the Upton Sinclair chapters. They are just as well-written as the others, don't get me wrong. But they have nothing to do with the actual story. They culminate in a wonderful sequence involving Sinclair's encounter with a drunken, abusive, and charismatic Jack London. It's great. It's also long. Skip it and save it for later.

Now, Woodrow Wilson. He's front and center her in this book, so you can't really skip him (though you probably could). I've discussed Wilson as a noir villain before. Here is is convincingly portrait from the inside: obsessive, paranoid, racist, unhealthy, narrow-minded, yet with a kind of saving force of personality. He harbors some of the villains of the piece, with no idea of who they are or what they represent. But, in the end, he makes a good choice, slightly redeeming himself. Wilson remains the great mystery of American history.

But when he encounters other historical characters, he goes dead too. There is an extended sequence in Bermuda, told through letters from Wilson to his wife. You can skip that whole part too. Why? Two words: Mark Twain.

Mark Twain is mandatory for any novel, whether alternate history or historical, set in the decades around 1900. After all he is a charismatic figure, and he really did seem to have known and befriended every significant figure of that era. But he almost always kills stories stone dead. Because he is impossible to imitate without being Mark Twain, and was, by this point in his career, playing Mark Twain as a role anyway. And he encourages writers to coast by stealing quotes and turning them into faux dialogue. He is a character in those Bermuda letters, which are pretty much as interesting as you would imagine letters from Woodrow Wilson to be.

You can read about Grover and Frances Cleveland. They are just local color, really.

There. I've saved you a couple of hundred pages out of a 700 page book.

The book is told as the historical researches of one M.W. van Dyck, a scion of a local family. He collects documents and personal testimony, which he edits and even destroys, as needed to maintain propriety. We all love our obsessive annotators and collators, and van Dyck is a worthy member of the tribe.

There is one charming chapter where he details the various sources he has used: The Turquoise-Marbled Book, The Beige Morocco Book, the Crimson Calfskin Book, the Black-Dappled Book, the Sandalwood Box, and so on, giving a physical manifestation to the various characters we have been following.

There are murders, vampires, grotesque deaths, mysterious magic kingdoms, a boy turned to stone, an abduction of a bride in full view of the congregation, and a manifestation of Sherlock Holmes that tells us that certainty does not necessarily mean truth.

So, I recommend it. Whether you skip the sections I suggest is purely between you and your readerly conscience.