Joyce Carol Oates: I’ll Take You There
Oates’ novels generally tell the story of intense and generally unhappy women. This one is certainly no exception. Our heroine’s early life is not a happy one. She was brought up in Strykersville, New York state. We do not even know her name. On one or two occasions, she has the opportunity to tell us but avoids doing so. The sorority house mother in the first part variously calls her Mary Alice, Janice and other names but our heroine tells us (but does not tell the house mother) that they are not her real name. She herself tells us and her boyfriend in the second part that her name is Annelia but then tells us (but not her boyfriend) that Annelia is not her real name. We do know the names of her family – her three older brothers, her father and her mother. Her mother, Ida, had always wanted a girl but had three sons, then two miscarriages and finally had a daughter at age forty-one. She subsequently contracted breast cancer, had a mastectomy but died when Annelia was eighteen months old. Annelia’s father and brother always seemed to blame her for Ida’s death. Her father tended to travel around, disappearing for long periods. Annelia was brought up by her grandparents but longed for her father to reappear. To her surprise, he showed up at her high school graduation (she was valedictorian). He then disappeared again. Sometime afterwards one of her brothers phoned her to tell her that he had died in Utah, his body lost or buried out there.
At the start of the novel, Annelia is a student at Syracuse University, to which she had won a scholarship. She is studying philosophy. She is lonely, unhappy and has no friends. She doesn’t fit in. However, by the second year, she has been befriended by Dawn (who wants to use her purely to help her with her essays) and has been admitted to the Kappa Gamma Pi sorority. The house where she lives is overseen by a house mother, Mrs. Agnes Thayer. Mrs. Thayer was a British war bride, her husband being a US airman. She had followed him to the USA but he had died and she has now taken this job. She feels it is her role to make sure her charges behave in a proper manner at all times and spends much time in enforcing this, generally with only minimal success. Most of the girls sneak out, to drink, have sex and to party. Mrs. Thayer does not, of course, approve of men. Annelia does not fit in with these women. She has no experience of men, does not drink and does not party. Moreover, she is too poor to enjoy herself, even if she wanted to. She is the one that stays at home on Saturday night, studying. She clearly feels that she does not fit in and this feeling grows in strength during the course of the first part of the novel, to the extent she is often afraid to spend the night in the room with her room mate (she sleeps in the lounge) or eat with the others.
Oates describes in agonising detail the gradual decline of Annelia. When the other girls start turning more against Mrs. Thayer – the Brit-bitch as they call her – Annelia continues to behave. When there is evidence of sabotage – Mrs. Thayer’s British magazines untidied, for example – Mrs. Thayer calls the whole house to order and asks who is to blame. Annelia, the one person who clearly did not do it, takes the blame. Things can only get worse and there is a final showdown, which leads to Annelia leaving the sorority.
The second part, entitled The Negro Lover, concerns Annelia’s interest in a graduate philosophy student called Vernor Matheius. He is in her class and challenges the professor, to the professor’s annoyance. The professor eventually asks him to stop asking his questions, causing him to leave the class. Annelia pursues him and, eventually, they have a desultory affair. Vernor, as the title implies, is an African-American, though relatively light-skinned. Part of the story is the challenge both he alone and they as a mixed-race couple face. The final part takes us back to her family with the usual Oates twist in it.
Annelia, whose real name we never discover, is, even by Oates’ usual standards, a misfit. She has no friends. She remains a loner. (At the end she is writing stories in a cabin in Vermont.) She struggles to fit in with her family or with others. She seems to have difficulty adapting. Of course, as with the usual Oates heroine, she inherits the problems of her family, particularly her misfit of a father. She does try to fit in with her family at the end and tries to adopt a cause, the African-American cause, following the murder of Medgar Evers, but even then it doesn’t really work. Maybe, Oates implies at the end, it is only in death that things can work out.
First published 2002 by Ecco