The New York Times said
, "Some novels are almost impossible to review, either because they’re deeply ambiguous or because they contain big surprises the reviewer doesn’t wish to give away."
I'm not so sure about the surprises -- other than one particular thing near the end, it wasn't too difficult to see what was coming, although some of the events were decorated with surprising details. However, there's no question about the ambiguity. (Which strikes me as a rather oxymoronic thing to say, but there you go.) Even after the last page, one still isn't quite sure what happened and what only seemed
to have happened.
I have a love/hate relationship with Oates. I've read very few of her books -- more of her short stories -- because almost every one I've read has left me deeply uneasy. I read "Where are you going, where have you been" five years ago, and just remembering it still creeps me out to this day. Obviously this is the mark of a skilled writer, but I don't generally choose my books for the purpose of psychically scarring myself. In addition, she has a tendency to focus on the dark side, and as a result it's often difficult to like any of the characters in her novels. They're just not very nice people, many of them.
This book has many of the elements I love, though, so I thought I'd give it a shot. First and foremost, it's a purported history, replete with excerpts from letters, diaries (including coded ones!), newspaper articles, transcribed eyewitness accounts, and a boatload of historical detail intermixed with straight narrative. Oates does an excellent job creating the very different voices of the writers of these various "primary sources" -- I particularly enjoyed the semi-coherent ramblings of the neurotic Adelaide Burr, who refers to herself as "Puss," reads Madame Blavatsky
in secret, and has some serious issues with sex. The narrator himself, one M. W. van Dyck, is great fun, an unreliable raconteur prone to digress into irrelevancies (the history of corsets, the minutiae of Princeton politics) at the drop of a hat. Like all too many writers, he clearly wanted to jam every single bit of his research into his book; in fact, he spends several paragraphs listing all the things he had to leave out.
Second, the story is intricately woven into actual history through the use of real people (Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Jack London, various faculty at Princeton University), places (Princeton University, New York City) and events of the times (Socialists, anarchists, etc.). None of them are particularly pleasant people, but they are real.
Third, it's got solid Victorian gothic chops: a demon bridegroom, huge grand homes, a beautiful innocent young girl, a vicar with a secret, a competition with the devil (or possibly just a minor demon, it's hard to say), an exotic and mysterious European nobleman, murder, suicide, madness and more. All that and a surprisingly high body count. (Like the House of Usher, the doomed Slades don't seem to have much of a future, although that too is ambiguous.)
On the down side, most of the characters aren't very likable and the supernatural parts end up playing second fiddle to the real villains: the upper classes, who can't be bothered to speak out against racism, prejudice, poverty, hideous working conditions, the second-class treatment of women, and other societal ills (although the narrator himself doesn't seem to even notice this, which is kind of amusing).
And it's very, very
So be patient, Constant Reader, and expect to enjoy the journey as much as -- perhaps more than -- the destination.