Chapter 4: Please, No More

by Bethany Legg, from Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/zX9KPt1Hl_c

The several weeks between posts about my thesis should suggest that I am done with writing, at least for the moment. I’ve sprouted four chapters of around 11 000 words each, and I just don’t have that many words left to give. This becomes slightly embarrassing in conversation, when my depleted vocabulary can’t even offer up words as simple as ‘bookcase’, ‘eventually’ and, I kid you not, ‘tomorrow’.

I suppose there comes a stage for every thesis-writer when they are just about done, but not done enough. In my case, the recently achieved self-assurance from Chapter 3 all but evaporated near the end of Chapter 4, when I was struggling to get it over with. This was a special chapter in several ways: 1) I hadn’t planned it from the beginning, 2) I only settled on a book for it about two months before I wrote it and 3) it required a chunk of new research that I had not quite bargained on. Moreover, the book I chose for it was something of a pain in the ass.

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed only came to my attention at the beginning of this year, when I was working on Chapter 2 and desperately in search of a third book for my thesis on Neo-Gothic fiction. (Just by the way, why can’t reviewers give you some standard information on the text’s use of generic conventions and structural features? I want to know when a novel is set and whether it features a ghost, for crying out loud). It was briefly mentioned in a Call for Papers as an example of Gothic fiction, so I looked it up and thought ‘Oh my God, it’s perfect!”. Stephen King hailed it as the first really Gothic postmodern novel. It features a frame narrator – an amateur historian – who attempts to ‘set the record straight’ about the Crosswicks Curse, a mysterious and supernatural malevolence that is visited upon the Princeton community over 1905-06. It is historical. It is supernatural. It is Gothic-extraordinaire.

And boy, is it.

Let me enlighten those who have not had much to do with Gothic as a form. One of its defining features is excess. By this I mean, it is characterised by a tendency to go overboard. Whether in length (Ann Radcliff), sensibility (Wilkie Collins) or gore (Monk Lewis), Gothic fiction will go above and beyond in some peculiar aspect. The Accursed goes above and beyond in almost all. Enigmas are wrapped in mysteries wrapped in uncertainties with a mischievous cherry on top, and all of this is neatly tied into a monstrous narrative delivered by an unreliable and (perhaps) monstrous narrator. Nothing is certain in this book. Every word can serve as an indication of something. It is a smorgasbord of quoting material, and I do love me a good quote.

All of this resulted in hours of leafing through its 700 pages, meticulously copying down words, marvelling at the intricacy of it all and coming to the conclusion that Oates is a lovely writer, but a stinking troll. The text pulls you every which way, if it manages to engage you at all. I loved it, my supervisor hated it, and seemingly no literary scholar has (as of yet) published anything on it. So, in writing about The Accursed, I was treading out into the unknown, and staking my scholarship my own, rather tentative conclusions. These were, at least, based on that chunk of new research I had to do on the American Gothic, Joyce’s oeuvre and race in American fiction. Fun times.

What I ended up with remains to be seen. The chapter has been sent and returned with many a comment that will require careful working through and editing. That will come, soon. Right now I’m just happy that my chapters are all but done. I’m almost done. Almost, but not quite yet. The BIG EDITS lurks on the horizon.

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