CarthageCarthage by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

hmmmm…. not destined to be my favorite JCO ever.

it’s hard to say what this book is about–the ever-widening destructive circles of war? the persistence of delusion? men’s wars vs. women’s wars? or just a bunch of kind of icky people having a hard time?

it’s really hard to like anyone in this novel, or even understand them very much. we have the standard JCO family–white, well-off, Dad’s a local hail-fellow-well-met, Mom’s a kind of mousy hausfrau. in these two, there is remarkably little to differentiate them from a lot of similar JCO characters, and i confess to getting a bit impatient with them, and even–gasp! with JCO. like, can’t we do somebody different?

the two daughters–the pretty one and the smart one, as we are continually reminded–are not exceptionally close sisters, as the smart one seems to have been born with a metaphorical black shard in her heart. the pretty one (who does have a name, but why bother) is milquetoast. the smart one is bitter gall.

the pretty one (i continue with the italics because JCO did all throughout the book) is engaged to be married to Brett, who at the opening of the novel has returned from fighting in Iraq both horribly wounded and deeply broken. Brett soon, feeling less than a man due to his injuries, breaks off the engagement.

and then the smart one disappears, presumed murdered by Brett.

maybe part of this tale is meant to show all the varieties of broken-ness: Brett by the war, the pretty one by the end of the engagement and sister’s subsequent disappearance, the smart one by her presumed rape & murder, the parents by her loss. but i can’t bring myself to believe in anybody’s broken-ness but Brett’s–that man has been broken by his experiences. (JCO does a great job, by the way, of getting across thought processes in a man who has not only suffered a traumatic brain injury but is also doped on every drug the VA can cram down his throat.)

but the mother and father? no, not so much. and the smart one? not at all.

maybe this book is an exercise in empathy–we as readers have to either choose sides or just throw in the judgement towel and try to understand everybody. being a reader interested in widening my own horizons, i tried to do the latter, but found those horizons simply couldn’t extend to the smart one, who is just a nasty piece of work.

maybe it’s about–but it can’t be, not really–men’s wars vs. women’s wars? after all, most men go to some foreign country for their wars and come back in varying states of disrepair, if they come back at all. some reintegrate themselves, some don’t. women, on the other hand, live with the (potential) enemy all around them all the time, and we never know who our attackers might be. men in this book are constantly wanting to “protect” women, and from whom but other men?

an awful lot of the male/female dynamic in this book feels faintly musty, as if significant chunks of the characters’ psyches are mired in a previous generation (or two). the line about how any girl would rather be the pretty one rather than the smart one. the inability of the smart one to value herself for her intelligence. the parents’ relationship seems downright 1950s. in my universe, people have moved on from the strictures of these hidebound sex roles, however imperfectly.

and finally, Brett, the only character with whom i could forge any like, is ultimately kind of unbelievable. he starts out a bonafide War Hero (in the eyes of his townfolk, anyway), becomes a maybe-rapist/murderer, and ends up a saint. it’s at his sainthood that i throw up my hands in disbelief.

so, as i said, not my favorite JCO. like a user unfamiliar with a computer interface, i’m more than willing to believe that i’m doing something wrong–i have misinterpreted this book, i missed the point. i hope so.