I’ll Take You There by Joyce Carol Oates

This is, according to the listing in the front of this book, Oates’s 86th book in less than 40 years – and since it’s from way back in 2002, she’s probably passed 90 by now. There’s never been a serious literary writer, as far as I know, who comes close for productivity.

I sometimes wonder if that is why she gets quite a lot of stick in some quarters. It shouldn’t be a reason for that: there is no inherent inverse law governing quantity and quality. Her work shows no sign of being slapdash or facile, in its design or the individual sentences, which strike me as painstaking and intense and precise. I sometimes wonder whether, if she were male, she would be more highly regarded, whether a man writing with such intellect and force might be more easily appreciated, but that’s a pointless dead end.

This is a novel about a thin, intelligent and intense young would-be writer at college in the ’60s – all details that certainly fit Oates, but I’ve not bothered to investigate whether this is at all autobiographical or not. I think she’s too clever for anything so simple, and anyway I don’t really care. It’s very sharp, nasty and funny about sororities and academic and collegial hypocrisy, equally incisive and unsentimental about her protagonist (I don’t know if that makes this more likely to be about herself or not – in a rather circular argument, I’d have to know a lot more about Oates to guess). It covers a certain amount of racial politics, in a way, but the focus is firmly on individuals, on people of high intelligence who can’t fit in with their peers at all, for all kinds of reasons. She’s always been strong on such things, and on how young people build images of others, but I guess I like her most when she is dissecting how people and events are mythologised (Broke Heart Blues, Black Water, Blonde)(or maybe I just prefer books beginning with ‘B’).

I think it’s the intelligence of her prose that makes me regard her so highly: the Faulknerian repetition, striving for a power and exactness, the willingness to worry a detail of feeling into the ground. One other thing too: I have only read a minority of her books, but I don’t think any one has been much like any other, nor have any seemed like they could ever be the work of any other writer. This is always a good thing, I think.