This will eat its way into your brain
AT first sight, Carthage appears to be a fairly straightforward thriller, its central plot set out on the very first page following the prologue: “Where Zeno Mayfield’s daughter had disappeared to, and whether there was much likelihood of her being found alive, or in any reasonable state between alive and dead, was a question to confound everyone in Beechum County.”
A missing girl. A teenager. A slightly odd girl-child with a significant artistic talent and a decidedly off-centre worldview. The difficult one. The underachiever. The unloved one?
The last of these is indicated to the reader in the prologue by Cressida Mayfield herself. “Didn’t love me enough. Why I vanished. Nineteen years old. Tossed my life like dice.”
As Carthage makes clear as it peels the skin from this beginning, it may be Cressida who tosses her life like dice but in doing so she also tosses the lives of everyone around her into grief and turmoil. For Cressida is loved, intensely, by her parents and her beautiful sister Juliet. But she does not feel sufficiently loved and that is a different and a dangerous thing.
Partly this is because Juliet garners all the attention – Juliet the virtuous, the lovely, the successful, the conformer, confident, and glorious; while kid sister Cressida skulks in the dark corners, an undeveloped small slip of a thing in black. It is hard to live in the shadows of the spotlight, of Juliet, named after the greatest romantic heroine of all time and engaged to Brett Kincaid, her Romeo from the other side of the tracks but a hero nonetheless in small town America as a soldier sent to fight in the Iraq war.
And I give nothing away, as it is written in the first dozen words of the novel, to reveal that Cressida has chosen to disappear. “Why I vanished”. But the manner of her doing so is cruel.
Brett Kincaid appears to be involved. He returns from Iraq a physical and mental wreck, his body burned and ripped and his mind in shreds from the horrors he has seen. The fighting has been bad enough but the horror that seems to linger more is the brutality and barbarism of his colleagues, the taking of trophies and the rape of civilians. Despite the shattered state of her fiancé Juliet stands by him, only to be rejected. Brett must face the demons alone.
An outsider, so recognised by Cressida who follows him one night to a bar on the edge of town, the hangout of Hells Angels and the young hard drinkers. A most unlikely venue for Cressida. And there she tells her sister’s ex-fiance that only she can understand him, that only she can save him. And then she disappears, leaving behind traces of hair and blood in the front of his car for all the world to assume that the drunken, hung over and memory-less Brett Kincaid has somehow and for some reason murdered her and hidden her body somewhere in the wilderness of the Adirondacks Mountains.
And as Brett can recall nothing but is eaten by post war and post traumatic guilt, he sort-of confesses and takes the sentence deemed appropriate by the court.
It will, I hope, be evident by now that Carthage is no ordinary thriller and its aims and concerns are much deeper and wider than those that genre, love it as I do, normally grapples with. Let me tease out some of them. Firstly, the family. The Mayfields are socially respectable, influential and well-respected. Juliet is much admired; Cressida a cause of puzzlement. But there is nothing on the surface to suggest the depth of Cressida’s unhappiness or the extreme nature of her response to it. The teenage Cressida is potent and dangerous. Her decision to vanish will have enormous repercussions. Beneath the apparent calm of the family are currents nobody has fathomed.
Through the character of Brett Kincaid, author Joyce Carol Oates confronts us in merciless terms with the brutal realities of war and what it does to young men, frequently those from the underclasses of society. If you have read Yellow Birds, the 2012 novel by American Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, you will have some idea of what has happened to Brett. It is not simply about what war makes you do to others but about what war does to you. What is a complicit society’s role and responsibility in this?
And thirdly, but by no means exclusively, when Cressida reinvents herself she works as an intern for a character who calls himself “the Investigator”, an exposer of malpractice in areas ranging from factory farming to the judiciary. When Cressida acts for him they tour a high security prison with a number of prisoners on death row. It is a tour de force, a massively uncomfortable reading experience. Questions about justice, retribution and the nature of evil abound.
And when some four hundred plus pages later, all of this and more is pulled together, there remain the biggest questions of all. What does it mean to be forgiven? Where are the boundaries of individual freedom and civic and familial responsibility? And crucially, is redemption possible? Oates has written a barnstormer of a novel, and bit by bit it will likely eat its way into your brain.