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The lies that blind

Black Girl/White Girl A Novel Joyce Carol Oates Ecco: 272 pp., $25.95

October 15, 2006|Stanley Crouch | Stanley Crouch is the author, most recently, of "Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz."

NO living American writer is more skilled at showing the human heart in conflict with itself than Joyce Carol Oates. However gifted at plot development and the use of motifs and thematic clues to provide psychological and emotional depth, Oates is, finally, a writer of moral fiction. She often writes about costs and responsibility. In her work there is always a culprit or a set of culprits responsible for those costs, which are forever high. A death or the destruction of a career can result because of a mistake made by someone else. Though profoundly aware that we are often most human in the middle of misunderstanding others, Oates is also telling us that so many of our most haunting tragedies are rooted in wrong judgments. What makes her particularly important to our time is how she brings those technical skills and that overview to the most demanding frontline of our era and the epic quality of its errors based in liberal or conservative stereotypes. These received ideas are supposed to explain ethnic behavior, family, history, society and themselves.

Oates has long avoided the dominant tendency that results in American writers knowing much about their backyards but little about their neighborhoods, cities or states, and even less about those outside their ethnic groups. That is why "Black Girl/White Girl" is such a marvel and moves the very enterprise of contemporary fiction far beyond the well-worn subject of self-obsession. Oates writes from the frontier of integration, where race is all but tells us so much less than we might assume, imply or assert.

"Black Girl/White Girl" is the third novel in which Oates plays variations on the psychologically complex themes of interwoven class and ethnic conflict. The situation is familiar: During the 1970s, a young female freshman struggles with the deceptive layers of trouble arriving in black and white terms that mystify, disturb and frustrate her. One is startled by how Oates achieves even greater depths of human understanding than she did in the previous "I'll Take You There" from 2002, both a blue masterwork and an extraordinary advance over the first in this series, 1990's "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart."

The narrator/main female character makes good and bad decisions in response to surroundings where rational and lunatic modes of address become ritualistic: White and black people relate to each other while playing all manner of games and wearing all manner of masks. Yet Oates finds human parallels, no matter how far apart her people might be on the social or the color scale. That is the fundamental strength of literary art, and Oates knows, without a doubt, that there is always a human heart beneath the surfaces, and it usually beats frantically or in stunned slow motion.

In making this concealed humanity apparent, the novelist outdoes almost all American writers in her imaginatively ordered structures of revelation. Techniques are borrowed from the detective story; with a virtuosic sense of placement, she provides clues through outbursts in which suppressed thoughts and feelings appear and surprise the teller as much as they do the listener. Her varieties of precision allow for distinct tonal and rhythmic differences if the sudden blurtings take place in public or in private. One can spark anger and embarrassment, the other empathy.

Oates masterfully uses a patient tempo to make everything seemingly clear but not didactic. The middle-aged narrator tells us about herself when she was a white girl living with a black girl during their freshman year at a liberal arts college founded by Quakers. Though the white girl is so ashamed of her privileges that she hides the fact of being heir to Quaker millions, and though the black girl has been reared as the spoiled, self-centered daughter of a minister, they are very similar. Both girls feel alienated from their surroundings and equally intimidated by their classmates, no matter how differently they express their fears or how hard they try to protect themselves.

The white girl pretends to be just another freshman strapped for money, and she brown-noses with a nearly selfless determination much of the time. The black girl trembles behind a blowfish exterior of condescending bitchiness that intensifies as her dorm mates -- black and white -- lose patience with her and slowly begin to hate the young woman for her apparent sense of superiority, if not a defiantly unquestionable feeling of personal perfection.

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