With her new novel, "I'll Take You There," Joyce Carol Oates reiterates her position as one of the big talents at the forefront of the most significant movement in American fiction, which is the turning away from the mono-ethnic novel in favor of the frontier where all the issues of integration are raised. From boy meets girl, to God and man, to goods and services, to low-down and dirty politics, integration is the most important theme in literature. That is all writers have ever talked about: how two things quite different or seemingly different can be brought together.
Within the context of our society, the "I and thou" issue begets a very complex set of questions that cross the lines of class, of sex, of religion, of region, of color -- which is what such questions should do. Most American writers, however, rarely take up the challenge that William Faulkner had laid down by the time he wrote "Go Down, Moses" and tried to make sense of what has happened to us: white, black, Indian, Asian, animal and nature. He examined where we meet and where we part and why. He knew that apprehending the other in terms of mutual humanity is the task and the trouble.
As with the doomed interracial romance of 1990's "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart," Oates is after the human meanings of our troubles and our victories and how a writer of fiction, taking up the Faulknerian challenge, can still step up and write as though there are no innate barriers to human feeling and human revelation, that one does not have to be "one of them" to "understand" those other people.
This, of course, is the least politically correct stance that a writer can take, but it is also, perhaps, the only stance that a serious writer in our time should take. Whether the writer is well known like Philip Roth or Charles Johnson or Richard Price or Tom Wolfe, or rising to power like Danzy Senna, or moving right along like Barbara Probst Solomon, Bharati Mukherjee and Robert Hellenga, or getting ready to shake everything up like Richard Powers, or waiting for his opportunity way down yonder in New Orleans like Tom Piazza, something is going on and none of it is going further or deeper than what Joyce Carol Oates is offering us.
"I'll Take You There," told in flashbacks, takes us back to the 1960s. It is avant-garde in its structure: Three movements function like musical choruses in which themes are laid out, symbols are manipulated, and tools that will appear at the end, like the mirror, keep expanding as the narrator, a female writer, recalls three events from her early womanhood that she realizes are emotionally connected because they all brought her closer to maturity. In each case, she moves from macro to micro, from some big theme or some big situation, to something very intimate, a moment between the narrator and one person. She take us from a class situation in a sorority house, to an interracial romance, to a confrontation with the face of death as it appears in a sliver of a looking glass used to secretly peep at a dying parent.
Each of the movements is about a spirit having to endure rejection and surmount its own sorrow and its own fear, sometimes asserting itself through a defensive anger that can be self-deprecating or mockingly aggressive. The novel is about six things: self-confidence, bigotry, class, race, parentage and geography.
A naive, insecure and brilliant girl discovers that her sorority sisters are no more than crude, well-reared cows possessed of little other than self-love, sadism and prejudices. The British house mistress, whom she admires and whose life she snoops into, is as lonely as the narrator, and she drinks in private, more than anyone should know. The girl leaves the sorority, pretending to be part Jewish -- which is worse than already being poor! -- and the house mistress is brought down by the girl's curiosity.
This theme of leaving and of destruction is carried out when the same slim young girl later falls for a fellow student of philosophy, a willfully hazy Negro student 10 years her senior. Profoundly self-obsessed, he pretends at first not to want her any closer to him than the snooty sorority sisters did. Feeling a camaraderie because she too is an outsider, the girl believes that her experience with the class prejudices of the sorority have given her the power to love him against all odds and cure him of his vast loneliness, and even find herself in the process. She is wrong, and he dogs her, which she accepts as a young, self-righteously masochistic woman of her sort would. Bored and intimidated by her ardent -- even sacrificial -- willingness, he furiously drops her when she is caught rummaging through his stuff, just as she did with the private possessions of the sorority house mistress, who also caught her. Yet she has come to know him in the same way that she came to know the house mistress, by studying his private papers and his secreted photographs. Again, she realizes how a person feels and what this person has done in that mystery we call the past.
We see the impositions based in the color prejudice that separate the girl and her lover -- the botherment of being on display and always poorly understood -- when they, in fact, are sometimes doing their best to understand each other, to rise up above the loneliness they have in common, so they can offer each other something truly personal that is neither emblematic nor desperate. Some of these things arrive in sexual revelations that are as deep as anything James Joyce told us and far deeper than what most American writers have had to say, even when sex sustains itself as an obsession. The way the young woman stands up to the corpulent dean of students, who is disturbed by her sleeping with a Negro, shows both the girl's courage and, in a masterful turn, her gloating but very private pride at not being a bigot or a coward. This gives us the human feeling of a kind of youngish liberalism in all its brashness and naive sense of signal accomplishment.
The interracial romance is delivered with subtle insights that address color while stepping above it. Her guy does not see himself in terms of his skin tone because he believes he has "a higher calling": He wants to put his mind in dialogue with the great philosophers -- as a man -- not as a person completely defined by color. She, being more than a bit astute, recognizes at one point that all of the philosophers are men and that they must have had penises -- just as her guy, when physically drawn to her, must reluctantly face the fact that he does, too. But the narrating older woman observes that the presence and the appetites of a penis are never the subjects of philosophy. That her guy is an intellectual means she loves him because they can talk about philosophy and hide their needs behind ideas. This is very touching. The talk they engage in is no less jive; it is just of a higher and more charming order.
The achievement of the work -- other than the masterful strength of the form, the improvisational attitude toward sentence structure and the foreshadowing, as well as the deft use of motifs -- is that the world is revealed through a totally self-involved person whose entire experience is lived while closely being contemplated under the microscope of her own mind. This means that the challenge is to get other characters through the screen of her self-consciousness, which Oates does as only a true commander of the telling detail can.
While using the overriding issues of philosophy -- meaning, presence, nuance, explanation -- the novelist brings to life the sorority hussies and reveals something only the most insightful novelists realize: that alienation, as with worshipful acceptance, far too often creates a vulgar narcissism. The overwhelmed outsider suffers from constant self-perusal, wondering whether one is accepted or not, whether one is worthy of acceptance or should be rejected, whether one looks right or does not, whether one is truly inferior or, Lord help us, superior.
But in the world of white folks, it can go further than that. Skin color might not be enough to get one over. When the girl pretends to be Jewish in order to challenge the prejudices of the sorority, her act of rebellious masochism allows Oates to show us how claiming an ethnicity can change how one is seen or not seen. Prior to that, she was only thought of as a bumbling girl from a farm town in upstate New York. Now, she has added ethnic prejudice to the class prejudice she is already experiencing. In short, she has become more repulsive, a condition she pushes further by picking a Negro lover.
By the final movement, it comes down to a little house in which the girl's father is dying, and the house mistress is a woman with whom he has lived. The girl, who is finishing her first book in Vermont, has had to drive to Utah to see him. There, in the big spaces of the West, so much is about sight, about confronting the impersonality of nature, about thinking an object is one thing from a distance and coming close enough to realize that it is something else altogether. It is about how small our lives are in the world of nature and that, unlike the grand narcissism of philosophy, nature needs never to know, or care, about the meaning of anything. People appear and disappear. They are remembered, and they are not. But if they are remembered accurately enough, they remain part of the public record until the public and the record have disappeared at the behest of the butcher known as time.
In the song that may have inspired the title of this novel, the Staple Singers tell us that they know of a place where nobody is crying, where no one is worried, where there are no false, smiling faces, where there is no lying to the races, and that they can take us there. Joyce Carol Oates is telling us exactly the opposite. But, instead of depressing us, she lifts our spirits with the tragic optimism that is at the center of her poetic impulse, a force that, word by word, never fails to rise up from the dark, sorrowing bowels of this novel.