Oates (Sourland, 2010, etc.) finishes up a big novel begun years before—and it’s a keeper.
If the devil were to come for a visit, à la The Master and Margarita, where would he turn up first? You might not guess Princeton, N.J., long Oates’ domicile, but there “the Curse” shows up, first in the spring of 1905, then in June, on “the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade’s wedding.” No slashing ensues, no pea-green vomiting; instead, the good citizens of Princeton steadily turn inward and against each other, the veneer of civilization swiftly flaking off on the edge of the wilderness within us and, for that matter, just outside Princeton. Woodrow Wilson might have said it differently when he reflected on his native Virginia: “The defeat of the Confederacy was the defeat of—a way of civilization that was superior to its conqueror’s.” It just could be that the devil’s civilization is superior to that of America in the days of the Great White Fleet and Jim Crow, for Wilson—a central figure in the novel and then-president of Princeton University—is no friend to the little people. But then, none of Oates’ male characters—some of them writers such as Mark Twain and Jack London, others politicos such as Grover Cleveland, still others academics plotting against the upstart Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its “devilish business”—are quite good guys: Representatives of the patriarchy, they bear its original sin. The Curse is the one of past crimes meeting the future, perhaps; it is as much psychological as real, though Oates takes pains to invest plenty of reality in it. Carefully and densely plotted, chockablock with twists and turns and fleeting characters, her novel offers a satisfying modern rejoinder to the best of M.R. James—and perhaps even Henry James.
Though it requires some work and has a wintry feel to it, it’s oddly entertaining, as a good supernatural yarn should be.