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Picking up where Faulkner left off

I'll Take You There: A Novel; Joyce Carol Oates.The Ecco Press: 290 pp., $25.95

January 26, 2003|Stanley Crouch | Stanley Crouch is the author of "Notes of a Hanging Judge" and "The All-American Skin Game."

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.

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