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Charting the distances that separate us

Carthage, the newest novel from Joyce Carol Oates, takes its name from the city in Upstate New York that its main characters hail from. Yet Carthage isn't so much about any particular place as it is about the idea of "home," and, more specifically, how far one can get from it.

"Carthage" by Joyce Carol Oates. From the book jacket
"Carthage" by Joyce Carol Oates. From the book jacketRead more

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco. 496 pp. $26.99

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Langemak

Carthage

, the newest novel from Joyce Carol Oates, takes its name from the city in Upstate New York that its main characters hail from. Yet Carthage isn't so much about any particular place as it is about the idea of "home," and, more specifically, how far one can get from it.

The book emphatically and artfully explores the subject of physical and emotional distances between loved ones, the various expanses between who individuals are, were, or could be, and the often barely perceptible gaps between guilt and innocence.

The first chapter opens on an alarming scene: Cressida Mayfield, the 19-year-old daughter of Zeno and Arlette Mayfield, is missing. The search for Cressida yields no body, and few valuable clues.

Cressida was last seen in the company of her sister Julia's ex-fiancé, Brett Kincaid, a severely wounded soldier returned from Iraq. Brett soon offers a disjointed confession of murder and is sentenced to prison, while the Mayfields struggle to come to terms with their rearranged lives.

Yet, as the prologue implies, Cressida still lives, and so the reader is plunged into her struggles as well, raising significant questions concerning what it means to be a victim, and what it means to victimize.

One of this gripping work's most striking features is Oates' engagement with language and form. Calling her characters "the father," "the mother," "the sister," and "the corporal" nearly as often as she uses their given names, Oates creates an artful shorthand for how Cressida's disappearance also signals the disappearance of life as her family members know it.

In Chapter One, Oates' use of the term "the father" marks a change in the way the larger community understands Zeno. His daughter's disappearance strips him of his identities as politician, lawyer, and husband, and reshapes him as the father of a missing child, isolating him in his grief. In this way, each character is systematically distanced from his or her life: the fiancée robbed of her first love, the soldier of his innocence, and the mother of even her anger as she experiences a religious awakening.

Oates also insists on other formalities of language as she underscores the Mayfields' grief. In some places, the narrative seeks to protract time by forgoing contractions, as when a phone call, "so desperately wished for, did not come." Oates' characters are also prone to repetition, their sorrow and confusion bubbling over into stiff litanies of loss, such as "for now she knew him" or, "for of course, Cressida was too smart." In these, and in the novel's endless reliving of past events, readers can sense the desperation with which each character tries to make a suddenly uncertain world more stable.

One of the most remarkable achievements of Carthage is Cressida Mayfield herself, and how utterly unlikable she remains despite the many ways she functions as the novel's central victim. Oates dances carefully around the formative details of her life, simultaneously presenting her as manipulative and naïve. Strong-willed yet sensitive, Cressida has a callous attitude toward others for which Oates peppers the story with vague explanations.

Yet various diagnoses of disability, low self-esteem, and a complicated, stunted sexuality make her a sympathetic character who somehow still seems written for pity rather than empathy. As a result, not every character is unequivocally pleased with the exceptional outcome of Cressida's story. Even the reader is encouraged to carefully consider the complications of a joyful homecoming, and to recall Cressida's bottomless need for love not only as disquieting, but as dangerous.

Carthage is not perfect. At times, it feels long-winded, and the formality that functions so effectively in some places seems strained in others. But it is, ultimately, a remarkable study in imperfection. Each of Oates' characters makes mistakes, or responds inadequately to challenges both before and after Cressida's disappearance. Each character suffers, and not always admirably so, and their flailing sometimes sinks them deeper into their broken lives. For them, forgiveness of self is linked to forgiveness of others, putting both gestures in short supply. Even I could barely forgive myself for my byzantine knot of suspicions, and my imperfect sympathies, toward a group of people so terribly distanced from their best selves by circumstances past their control.

I would argue that this sour, complicated, and ungenerous aftertaste is the rare experience that makes Carthage worth reading.