A younger daughter last seen in the company of her sister’s war-wounded ex-fiancé disappears, and a family rends into fragments in upstate New York. Joyce Carol Oates is known for richly detailed portraits of American families asunder. Carthage is a stunning contribution to her storied canon.
Meet the Mayfields: Father Zeno is a skeptical, preening small-town politician. Arlette, the mother, is faithful and forgiving. Their two daughters represent that classic fairy tale dichotomy, beauty versus brains: “There are radiant children like Juliet Mayfield. Guileless, shadowless, happy,” Oates writes. “There are difficult children like Cressida. Steeped in the ink of irony as if in the womb.”
Though Zeno delights in his 19-year-old’s sarcastic wit, it’s much harder for Cressida to connect with others. “She’s almost a little bit autistic,” says Oates, “or she has Asperger’s. She’s intelligent, but she’s slow to forgive because she has such a low sense of her own self-worth.” So it may shock to learn that she hitchhikes to a seedy roadhouse to make a love confession. The object of her ardor is Corporal Brett Kincaid, an Iraq war veteran suffering irreparable physical and mental injuries. His engagement to her sister is freshly broken.
He just wants to drive the young girl home, but it all goes wrong. “She—the girl—the younger Mayfield sister—had been drinking, too. A single beer, an immediate sensation of recklessness, audacity, laughter—Brett. Look at me for once. Know what we are?—soul mates. Now you’re disfigured like me,” Oates writes. The sentiment is not well received. “I wanted to write about a really serious and complex relationship that’s basically one-sided—how much he means to her, and how he’s almost like a lifeline. She sees him from a distance, and then at some misguided point in her life she approaches him, and that precipitates a catastrophe,” says Oates. Brett awakens in his vehicle on a dead-end road in the Nautauga State Forest Preserve. Fresh scratches mar his face, blood sullies his windshield and Cressida is gone.
The narrative cleaves to each character in turn, shifting to accommodate their idiomatic tones. The effect is symphonic. The scope enlarges beyond the case of the missing girl, illuminating a greater context of violence, foreign and domestic: that of maximum-security prisons, the aftermath of violence apparent in a battered women’s shelter, and the Iraqi towns where Brett witnessed atrocities perpetrated by fellow soldiers that blur the boundaries of war—he believes. The unreliable memory is a devastation. “Of his own free will he had confessed to the terrible crimes he’d committed even those he could not recall clearly through the mist of memory and when trying to recall, it was like trying to hear a small still voice amid a crazed clanking and
clattering of heavy machinery,” she writes. Brett goes to prison. The body is never found. Zeno and Arlette ail and lose grip on their marriage. Juliet struggles against the bitterness of losing true love, her sister and the beautiful life for which she seemed destined.
That a war since proved senseless set the injurious chain of events in motion is, perhaps, the true catastrophe of Carthage. “I have tremendous sympathy for young people who are victimized by their own idealism. I feel so sorry for them. Many idealists signed up after 9/11 thinking that they were making a difference for their country, and it really made no difference,” says Oates. “It’s important to call attention to it anywhere, in newspapers, in nonfiction, and in novels, television and movies, so that we don’t repeat these mistakes.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.