Joyce Carol Oates is a formidable presence in the literary world, so prolific a writer that it is difficult to evaluate her in the usual ways. Her body of work stands like a Devil's Tower risen on the plain, an object of awe, never eroding, constantly ascending.
Oates has produced novels, plays, poetry, even young adult work and perennially makes the short list for Nobel prize consideration. She publishes so often that for a while -- like Stephen King using a pseudonym -- she also wrote under the assumed name of Rosamond Smith. This frail-looking woman astonishes us all. She runs miles every day, keeps up a rigorous teaching schedule at Princeton and even does her own housework.
Oates is definitely the Energizer Bunny of American literature. Reading one of her novels -- say her latest, "I'll Take You There" -- is to experience a sort of channeling. It's as though you see a stranger on the Metro one day and idly wonder: What is her story?
Then a book lands with a thud on your doorstep that tells you everything this person has ever seen, done, thought, eaten, worn or read. A river of words flows about this character -- who her grandparents are, what they eat for Sunday dinner, what jobs did she have while still in junior high, how much she paid for a used sweater -- until as a reader you are almost gasping, "Stop! Please stop! Too much information!"
The central figure of this first-person narrative does not reveal her name. An eccentric young woman searching for her identity, she inexplicably joins the sorority Kappa Gamma Pi at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, an act she later terms "impetuous, infatuated, unexamined." Seeking sisters, seeking connection, she is admitted because of her brilliance and the hope she will raise the Kappas' grade point average.
Yet this troubled heroine is so out of place in the grand house and the totalitarian Greek system she suffers a brilliantly depicted breakdown. Not since Sylvia Plath wrote "The Bell Jar" has mental suffering by an artistic misfit been so poignantly explored.
She is "de-activated" and, in the central section of the novel, becomes attracted to the voice of Vernor Matheius, a graduate student in philosophy. Vernor's is a "voice of seduction, a voice of pleading. A voice of logic, reason, conviction. A voice like a caress ... " Vernor is black. This is the '60s so Vernor is still referred to as a Negro and the girl, who now calls herself by the made-up name of Anellia, by her own nomenclature becomes a Negro-lover.
Although Anellia is desperately lonely and somewhat drawn to those of outcast status, Vernor's exotic color is not the basis for attraction. The lovers are suffused with philosophy. They repair to the campus pub to discuss Schopenhauer's triumph of the Will. They need to analyze every action and thought a hundred times, to use philosophy as " ... an ice pick ... a surgical instrument for analysis, dissection, debridement, and comprehension." Dozens of German and Greek philosophers are quoted -- Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Plato -- their thoughts blending with those of the couple who, like Spinoza, will " ... analyze the actions and appetites of men as if it were a question of lines, of planes, and of solids."
Love is a trap and another path to madness for Anellia. She comes to believe that " ... the unexamined life, the life that's led without a continuous self-scrutiny ... was madness."
Back to excessive self examination, to exhausting details -- six pages to describe sour love-making, 12 pages when it is excellent -- a piling up of moments that leads this young woman at last to sanity and connection with -- Ah! -- herself!
Oates's characters never seem quite normal, yet they are believable and real. Finishing this novel, I felt informed and as usual in total thrall to this author's great mind and her ability to carry me through to the end. Yet sometimes, at the end of a book, I want to be in love. I crave a perfume lingering in the air and a metaphorical pillow to hug. After all, I've invested many hours in this story and I want a warm reward. But warmth is missing and because of that I cannot get passionate about Oates. I settle for admiration and respect. It is as though she has made me exercise.
Philosophers try to prove their theories by pure rationality, reasoning and logic. If "I'll Take You There" is a long philosophical proof, Oates proves her case. Her heroine breaks out of her false paths and finds truth in self and writing. In so doing, she tells you everything, Everything -- what career Vernor ends up in 20 years later, how much she pays for her VW Beetle and how much she gets in resale. At the end, nothing is left for the reader to wonder about, except perhaps to ponder how Joyce Carol Oates does this, time after time after time.
("I'll Take You There" by Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco, 290 pages, $25.95)