Joyce Carol Oates is undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers in the canons of Western and American belles-lettres. Her novels, short stories, poems, plays, literary articles, scholarly pieces and nonfiction essays are lofty contributions to the worlds of literature and popular culture.
The breadth and scope of her work is astounding. To read Joyce Carol Oates is to read a commentary on society and to look at the conscience of the world, through the eyes of those who create and inhabit it. Through her writing she ennobles the art of fiction, the splendor of poetry, the exhilaration of theater, while at the same time, she brings a heightened level of insight and fullness to her nonfiction.
Oates's newest novel, I'LL TAKE YOU THERE, is set in upstate New York, familiar terrain for her fiction. The story centers on Anellia (not her real name), the first person narrator, who longs to escape her sad and tawdry home life. After her mother dies and her father leaves, she is abandoned to her overly stern grandparents. She is miserable, sheltered, and despite her great intellect, is ignorant of the everyday "games people play" to get along and to get what they want. She has grown up knowing only that she is blamed for her mother's death, which has made her the target of hatred and cruelty at the hands of her brothers and grandmother. She carries these scars valiantly, but doesn't understand their impact on her personality.
When she speaks of herself she describes a wraithlike figure, shivering with cold even in the brightest sunshine. As a little girl she learned to live in her head and shape herself into a chameleon-like character --- she adopts roles she thinks will make people accept her. She is an eccentric youngster who often fantasizes about not being part of the real world, of living a life of the mind. Nevertheless, despite these idiosyncrasies, she manages to win a New York State Regents scholarship to Syracuse University.
At last, Anellia thinks, she's on her way to a new, richer life. She heads off to college with the best of intentions --- all she wants is to become one of the coeds, stimulate her intellect, and put the past behind her. But not long after her arrival on campus, in a moment of insight, Anellia says, [back home] … "I had never imagined a true library: a university library in whose stacks I might wander mesmerized for years … yet I saw myself at Syracuse as alone and beleaguered and fighting for my life … I was in a perpetual state of agitation."
Soon she finds herself flustered and flattered to be asked to join a popular sorority. And here is where the story shifts slightly, a tilt that allows the narrative's pervasive shadows to become a little darker, a little more defined. For reasons Anellia cannot at first ascertain, she is not comfortable or happy as a member of Kappa Gamma Pi. Then, in a shocking moment of clarity, she discovers that her "sisters," with whom she really has nothing in common, are using her as a conduit to better their grades, and in the end, they betray her. These vapid and vicious girls set her up as a patsy, which causes her loss of innocence and dims the sparkle of her earlier expectations. When Anellia leaves the "Kappas," she has no choice but to move on; but with no money, no friends, and no place to go, her prospects are bleak.
One of the most interesting devices the author uses in I'LL TAKE YOU THERE is both interior monologue and real-time observations. This gives us a fuller picture of Anellia's dilemmas and clues to her confoundedness. She remarks, "The study of philosophy is the study of the human mind" … and also one of the leitmotifs threaded throughout the whole of I'LL TAKE YOU THERE. Oates quotes all of the philosophers from Socrates to Sartre, which imbues the book with a heady concentration on the human condition. Readers may find these asides a bit distracting at first, but as the plot roars on, it becomes clear that the notion of studying the human mind is, according to our narrator, "… to be baffled utterly."
It is with this mindset that Anellia becomes obsessed with a troubled, but brilliant, black graduate student she meets in an Ethics class. "…That voice … like a musical instrument … was both respectful and insolent … searching and earnest …" in its defense of its owner's ideas; and, without a glance backward or second thought, the young Anellia decides she has fallen in love with this man.
Their perverse affair is hopelessly doomed, but Anellia's single-mindedness pushes the situation to a place where she accepts the punishment she thinks she deserves for falling in love. When this painful fiasco is over, a phone call from one of her brothers brings news of a relative once thought dead, which puts in place the events that change Anellia's life forever.
All of these seemingly disparate threads do come together in a cohesive, beautifully written novel. Readers will find that I'LL TAKE YOU THERE is a story of a life reflected in shades of gray. A character study that provokes questions about how individuals manage to live their lives; where and how can any person stable or unstable find some kind of peace? Anellia's life and her experiences are not unique to her. She is "every girl" who is not willing to wrap herself inside a cocoon of hypocrisy, and she represents those women who wish to move beyond the bonds that bind females to roles as mother, wife, friend, daughter, and object. Joyce Carol Oates has created a heroine, who, at first, has no idea how strong she is, and does not understand how worthy she is until her great epiphany. In the end, Anellia knows she is and will always be a survivor.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011
I'll Take You There