Oates is deliberately provocative with this intellectual exercise about America's racial dilemma, but where is she going? She seems to suggest that the left is deluding itself, but surely the left is more nuanced than this when it comes to race, and we'd expect a novel to explore that nuance rather than oversimplify it. Oates dares to ask, how well do we know each other? But in her attempt to explore the duality of American racism, her truth is one-dimensional, even as it makes for fascinating reading.
The Washington Post
Joyce Carol Oates has never been shy about peering into the darkest corners of American culture. Her best booksBlonde, Zombie and Black Watershowcase her fascination with violence, her almost vampiric ability to tap into the subconscious of her troubled characters and her taste for appropriating real-life tragedy. Oates's latest offering, Black Girl / White Girl, is no exception.
The New York Times
In 1975, racial tension still runs high at Genna Meade's mostly white Schuyler College in Pennsylvania. Her outcast black roommate, Minette Swift, is a D.C. preacher's daughter; Genna is descended from the college's founder. Minette misses home desperately; Genna, in contrast, avoids her "hippie" mother's phone calls while yearning for a visit from her absentee father, activist lawyer Maximilian Meade. Despite their differences, the girls muster an effortful friendship, due to the near-fetishization of black culture that Genna's parents have inculcated in her. When racist incidents begin to plague Minette, Genna tries to protect her, but Minette lapses into an antisocial, dangerous depression. Meanwhile, Genna has her own problems-she's gradually piecing together clues to a mystery whose solution may lie far too close to home for comfort. Eventually, Minette's downward spiral prompts a shocking epiphany for Genna that will alter the course of her family's life. Oates bravely grapples with the fallout of the Civil Rights movement, the early '70s backlash against Summer of Love optimism, and the well-intentioned but ultimately condescending antiracist piety of privileged white liberals, but this anecdotal novel feels slight compared to her best work. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The amazingly prolific Oates follows High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006 with a short tale of fractured relationships and psychological horror. Narrator Genna Meade meditates on the long-ago, terrible death of a 19-year-old girl who might have been-maybe should have been-her best friend. On entering tony Schuyler College in the mid-1970s, Genna, a liberal and well-meaning prep-school grad, is looking forward to rooming with devoutly religious African American scholarship student Minette Swift. But the girls have little in common, other than an uncomfortable shyness with each other and uneasy relationships with adored but flawed fathers-Minette's dad is a charismatic minister, while Genna's dad is an attorney notorious for defending anti-Vietnam War radicals. The girls' tentative moves toward friendship and loyalty are undermined by the stresses of their first year of college and a series of hateful encounters that ends in tragedy and grief. This dark, suspenseful portrayal of fatal failures to communicate may prompt more than one reader to ponder the state of our society's moral condition. Recommended for most fiction collections.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Oates's billionth is a brooding analysis of racial relations and white liberal guilt, which partially echoes her eerie novella Beasts (2001) and earlier major novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. It's a fragmented "text without a title," composed in retrospect by Generva "Genna" Meade, recalling her undergraduate years at prestigious Schuyler College, founded by a member of the truculently progressive Meade family. Genna's story details her unequal relationship, in the mid-1970s, with her standoffish black roommate Minette Swift, daughter of a Washington, D.C., minister, and a scholarship student who's defiantly not grateful for the "favor" white society has bestowed on her, and the college's endless tolerance of her academic failures. Genna's awkward efforts to bond with Minette are rudely rebuffed, as is her dismay and shock when ugly racially based insults rain down on her roommate. Genna's distracted urge to do what's right is also tested by her relationship with her counterculture-vulture parents: unstable pill-popping mom Veronica, and her father "Mad Max," a left-wing attorney notorious for supporting and funding protest demonstrations and suspected of complicity in a terrorist bombing that left a black security guard dead. In other words, the deck is tightly stacked. And Oates misses no opportunities to underscore and overstate her characters' ingrained attitudes (Max's abrasiveness, Minette's sullen religiosity), runaway emotional states (notably Veronica's) and utter incompatibility. There is some power in Genna's desperate wish to identify with Minette, and thus prove to herself her own liberal goodness-and in the tragic outcome of thewhite girl's insistent intimacy with the black girl. But Oates shifts the narrative abruptly in the closing pages, revealing the real "text" Genna has been writing, and the bitter small victory she wrests from it. It's jarring. Characteristically strident and forced-and it's a real shame. This could have been one of Oates's better books.