Carthage, the latest novel from Joyce Carole Oates, is just the sort of mental drama she is best known for. Fans will find Carthage a familiarly satisfying read; like many of Oates’ novels, Carthage is literary without being overly complex, philosophical in a way that adds depth yet remains readable, and is written with the eloquence one might expect from a winner of two O.Henry Awards, the National Book Award, and the National Humanities Medal.
The book, named for its setting in the small, upstate New York town of Carthage, opens as a community is rocked by the ostensible rape and murder of nineteen year old Cressida Mayfield. A suspect is named within the first pages: Sergeant Brett Kincaid, the newly-former fiancée of Cressida’s older sister.
As the story progresses, Oates’ interest in the human psyche faced with difficulty emerges yet again. The novel gradually becomes less about the story and more about character development, particularly in part two when nearly one hundred of the novels’ five-hundred pages are devoted to a field trip shared by two individuals. In this case, the plot is merely a backdrop from which Oates is able to explain the inner complexity of the characters, a choice made regularly in her work. For Oates, these extreme situations appear to reveal a character's psychology more clearly, but the tendency has earned her a reputation as an author obsessed with violence.
Little of what Oates works with in Carthage is revelatory: a small town community is shaken by tragedy, a young war vet cannot fit back into the life he once knew, a family is changed by the disappearance of their daughter, etc. Oates nonetheless manages to bring a freshness to these themes. In the wake of the Mayfield family tragedy, a multitude of belief systems emerge as various characters struggle to understand and explain an incomprehensible tragedy—religious, political, and patriotic beliefs, as well as a belief in traditional gender stereotypes. The tragedy chips away at and subtly undermines these often generalized, sometimes faithfully held, belief systems as they surface when such tragedies are made public and as people are forced to make sense of the nonsensical. Oates reveals the complexity of any notion once considered universally applicable as she allows each of these traditional American values to play out chaotically, character by character.
She also asks us to consider how we re-tell the same story to ourselves, each time to different effect: a man never held accountable for his role in the brutal gang rape and mutilation of an Iraqi girl is an American war hero, yet he finds himself incarcerated due to his nebulous, albeit admitted, involvement in the disappearance of his fiancée’s sister. With these contradictions, Oates questions the essence of justice, and prods at whether or not the judicial system really has much to do with it at all. She simultaneously addresses a collective belief in American-style ‘justice’ acted out militarily, and asks what these lofty values really mean, day-to-day, and in the lives of those who experience them. In the biggest sense, the complex conversations began in Carthage rest on the issue of how we find meaning in the world, and if once found, meaning really can be considered solid, or if the need to have it in the first place is simply an essentially human, perhaps futile, attempt to explain an essentially chaotic world.