Saturday, January 30, 2010

OK, This One Took Some Effort

Most of the fiction I read is sort of light and breezy.  Serial mysteries, Oprah's Book Club-type stuff (except when she decides to get all intellectual and reads Faulkner, Tolstoy or Morrison) don't generally require a great deal of serious intellectual effort to read.  They may have deeper meanings to contemplate, but generally speaking the actual reading  of them is pretty easy.

Well, my reading ability got a workout this week.  I just completed Joyce Carol Oates' I'll Take You There, a story of life and love in the rapidly changing America of the 1960s and how one young philosophy major handles it.  The narrator, whose name we never learn but who sometimes goes by Anellia, is a brilliant young girl from a poor immigrant family.  She is alternately ignored and treated cruelly by her family, who blame her for her mother's death.  Her alcoholic father, who disappears regularly from the family and is presumed dead by the time "Anellia" is a sophomore, is a cold, distant figure whose approval and love she is constantly seeking.  After spending her childhood lonely and searching for her father's approval, she goes off to Syracuse to study philosophy on a scholarship.  While there she joins a sorority looking for "sisters", but find instead obsession and madness.  She then moves on to a relationship with another brilliant philosophy student-who happens to be black.  After this relationship ends (badly) she gets news of a certain supposed-to-be-deceased family member, and all of the philosophy she's studied and life experiences she's had are no match for what fate has in store.

My first exposure to Joyce Carol Oates was We Were the Mulvaneys .  After reading that I picked up several more of her books, assuming that they would be similar.  Boy, was I wrong!  What I didn't realize about JCO then that I do now is how she chameleon-like she is in her ability to change her style to suit the topic of her book and the attributes of the characters that she creates.  I've read three or four of her more than 50 books, and if you had told me that each one was written by a different author I would have believed you.  The unifying element that ties them all together is not the familiar rhythms of personal "style", but is instead the themes of feminism, class tension, and the desire for power.  This particular story really stretched my reading-the narrator speaks in a manner that is a combination of present action and present thought, in a kind of stream of consciousness where her thoughts and emotions regarding events that transpire are intermingled with the actual events, memories of the past blending seamlessly with her present until you finally feel as though you have been buried under an avalanche of words, feelings, thoughts, sensations...That coupled with the many references to great philosophers and the use of their teachings to frame the experiences "Anellia" has make this a challenging read.  But it is one challenge worth taking-in "Anellia" we have a perfect archetype of the dissatisfation and angst that so many young people, especially young women, were feeling as we moved into and through the turbulent 1960s.

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