Joyce Carol Oates’ brilliant novel ‘Carthage’ carries the reader along on a compelling looping, zig-zag narrative which starts and finishes in the heart of a sympathetic comfortably-off family in the small upstate New York town of Carthage. Along the way, Oates drags us through extraordinary highs and lows in a thorough exploration of the human condition.
This is not a book about 9/11 or the dehumanising effects of combat in the Iraq war, neither is it a dissection of love, jealousy or family dysfunction. All these have their place here but they are the context for what is a powerful story of a young person struggling to find meaning in her life.
Cressida Mayfield belongs to that endlessly fascinating character-type, the ‘gifted misfit’ going off the rails. Examples of the type abound in great American novels, whether explicitly of the ‘coming-of-age’ genre or not. Super-sensitive, highly intelligent, intense, principled, vulnerable, remote and emotionally inaccessible, Cressida finds it difficult to negotiate her place in the world and yet she is as capable as anyone of experiencing emotion.
I’ve selected extracts from the episode in ‘Carthage’ where as a young high school student Cressida decides to volunteer to tutor inner city students struggling with Maths. This is uncharacteristic, as she is more of a loner than a joiner:
“The surprise was, almost immediately Cressida liked ‘tutoring’. She liked her young students – the majority were girls between the ages of ten and twelve – who looked to her for help so openly. Even the boys were somber and serious-seeming. … It was a revelation to Cressida, tutoring her pupils for ninety minutes with scarcely a break that working with others in such a setting could be so pleasurable. Teaching – a way of life? …she liked it that the young pupils clearly admired her and were eager to learn from her. And even the other Math Squad students – her classmates at Church Street – who ordinarily would have annoyed her with their chatter and laughter on the bus, seemed likeable to her.”
This is a small but significant moment in a big turbulent story and Cressida’s tentative enthusiasm and burgeoning confidence are a joy to behold. Unfortunately, the experience doesn’t end well.
Cressida Mayfield reminded me of Meredith ‘Merry’ Levov from Philip Roth’s wonderful novel ‘American Pastoral’. Growing up in New Jersey, Merry is Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov’s highly intelligent and much-loved daughter who goes on to commit a terrorist act as part of an anti-Vietnam war protest. The consequences of the young characters’ alienation are far-reaching in both novels but the wider social fracture is woven into the human drama more explicitly In ‘American Pastoral’ set in 1960’s America.
As he subsequently searches for explanations for his daughter’s actions, Swede recalls her reaction, aged 11, to seeing the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk on the TV news:
“Though she had been terrified for weeks afterward, crying about what had appeared on television that night, talking about it, awakened from her sleep by dreaming about it, it hardly stopped her in her tracks…. ‘do you have to m-m-melt yourself down in fire to bring p-p-people to their s-senses? Does anybody care? Does anybody have a conscience? Doesn’t anybody in this w-world have a conscience left?’”
To what extent are the difficulties faced by these gifted and sensitive young characters affected by their environment or upbringing? If the society around them was a little less complacent or materialistic and a little more idealistic or morally consistent, would things have been different? The struggles of these characters make great stories because we can identify both with their alienation and with the dismay of those close to them who are just trying to do the right thing.