War novels. Yeah, those books: The Things They Carried, The Hunters, Catch-22. We all know the type, sad books about happy-young men turning into sad-young men, or sad-young-old men, or sad-crazy-young-old men. But what makes a war novel a war novel? This certainly isn’t a genre open only to veteran writers, just look at the quintessential example: The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane was born six years after the Civil War ended. Or Hemingway, the Papa of modern American war literature, whose combat service amounted to having a mortar explode next to him while his ambulance delivered chocolates to the Italian Front. But both men authored iconic novels on war. As authors the success of their works depended on a different quality, one derived from their craft, not combat: authority. Experience in war is not a prerequisite but authority is.
When picking up Carthage, the latest addition to Joyce Carol Oates’s significant body of work, I knew it was about the disappearance of a girl, Cressida Mayfield, and that the prime suspect was an Iraq War veteran, Corporal Brett Kincaid, but I wasn’t sure what type of novel she’d set out to write. The book opens: “Didn’t love me enough. Why I vanished. Nineteen years old. Tossed my life like dice!” These are the thoughts of Cressida, but the sentiment of tossing one’s life like dice resonates throughout the novel. Early on, Oates establishes a parity between Cressida and Corporal Kincaid that runs the course of the narrative. The disappeared girl. The lost veteran. Both outsiders.
We learn this disappeared girl was troubled. “It was easier for Cressida to mock than to admire. Easier for Cressida to detach herself from others than try to attempt to attach herself.” Cressida usually wears black. She’s androgynous with stringy hair. She’s artistic and obsessed with MC Escher and Frankenstein. What’s worse is that she has a beautiful sister, Juliet. What’s doubly worse is that Juliet is engaged to the former football star Corporal Kincaid who, at least at first, is beloved by the entire Mayfield clan.
What gives Corporal Kincaid his outsider status is his war experience. Oates describes Iraq with passages like, “… an earlier strategy issued by the brigade commander Colonel T —— remained fresh and was preferred: KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT THEM OUT.” Oates observes that returning vets are, “Casualties of war. Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down, the veterans would be returned to civilian life, litter on a beach when the great tide has gone out.” Throughout the book extensive passages are dedicated to what’s blithely conveyed as the common practice of U.S. service members taking war trophies: fingers, ears, toes, the fashioning of purses from scalps. There’s a rape mentioned too, but the details are left blurry.
By the end of the book’s first third, we have the plot’s two principal characters: the tormented little sister and the All-American boy disfigured by war. Little is heard from Corporal Kincaid throughout the novel. He sits in dark corners of the narrative, a bit inanimate, like a broken chair marring a finely furnished room. What surrounds Corporal Kincaid is a compelling portrait of a family in crisis. Cressida’s father, Zeno, refuses to believe she is dead. For information that might lead to Cressida’s recovery, Zeno offers ever-larger rewards he can’t afford. Cressida’s mother, Arlette, wishes to forgive Corporal Kincaid for murdering her daughter. She wants to move on. This conflicts with Zeno’s faith that Cressida isn’t dead in the first place. The result is a powerful tension that follows the arc of the novel.
Carthage is at its best when it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a war novel. For pages on end it is a compelling mediation on belief, betrayal, and grief. When Oates veers back into the war story, it is regrettable that certain factual inaccuracies become distractions. The “Combat Infantryman’s Badge”, a device worn by soldiers who’ve seen active fighting becomes the “Infantry Combat Badge”. Marine Corps Recruit Training is said to occur at Camp Geiger, North Carolina when it actually occurs at Marine bases at either Parris Island, South Carolina or San Diego, California. There are numerous references to soldiers using cell phones to take pictures in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, a time when cellphones were strictly prohibited. These errors undermine the story’s authority.
Oates has written a good book. I’d recommend it. What does it matter if it is or is not a war novel. The best war novels aren’t war novels at all. They become something bigger.