Friday, January 12, 2007

"Black girl white girl" - Joyce Carol Oates

Well, this was by far my least favorite book of the last few months. Joyce Carol Oates is a very important American author, or so I hear, but after “Black girl white girl” I’m saddened to say I won’t be enlarging her fan base.
I had great expectations for this one: because of the author, the period (seventies), the scenario (college campus) and theme (the relationship between two female students, one black one white), but I was deeply disappointed. By page fifty I was already feeling slightly annoyed, and even though I got through the 272 pages I felt cheated in the end.
Genna Meade is the daughter of an infamous radical lawyer, the white girl of the title, who throughout the novel seeks the friendship of an aloof Minette Swift the daughter of a black minister. The lives of these two girls collide when they are assigned to be roommates in an all-girl dorm at Schuyler College, an institution founded by Quaker ancestors of Genna, a fact that she tries, and mostly succeeds, to keep from her colleagues. Now I hear you say, “what’s wrong? It sounds interesting enough” and it does. The problem is it doesn’t go much further. Already near the beginning the characters felt one-dimensional, and they never got any better; what’s worse they started to seem unbelievable (you just start going “Oh no she didn’t” every few pages). The fact that the girls’ fathers are featured so prominently tends to get a little thin, too. Okay we get it: Genna was brought up to believe in “white guilt” and equality as important social and personal guidelines for behavior; Minette steers her life by the course of her daddy’s religion. But really, are we supposed to believe that two nineteen year-olds hold their fathers opinions of the world so dogmatically in their hearts and minds that they can’t even begin to fathom that the world might be a little more complex, a little more grey, than their black and white views? So much for liberal education. In Genna’s case, the narrator, it’s even more hard to swallow: the girl obviously suffered of neglect (and even some hinted abuse), and from the near complete absence of her father, and spent the final years of high school in a boarding school, yet we are expected to believe that she is the quintessential “good girl” always eager to protect her roommate, even though, right from the beginning it is obvious Minette does not wish to be protected or even befriended.
There is a particular event, that seems to me so completely incredible as to be ridiculous: Genna’s mother, also neglected by her husband and emotionally unstable, visits her at college and presents her with an expensive Italian leather bag Genna didn’t particularly want; as the last day of school before Christmas unfolds, Genna decides to leave the bag behind as a gift for Minette, a girl which never encouraged any friendship, and often avoided her completely.
But, you’ll say, some girls elicit that kind of devotion, they can be bitches and still others pine for their friendship. But that’s just it, Minette is not a bitch, nor is she beautiful, nor intelligent, nor funny or even interesting. In fact, what we know for sure about Minette is that she is deeply religious, academically way behind her colleagues, incapable of humor even though she is sometimes unintentionally funny, quick to take offense, and most astonishing of all, seems to repudiate every single girl, white or black, who tries to befriend her.
These two girls seem to live only to embody their fathers’ ideals, for they have none of their own. They don’t question, don’t doubt, don’t resent, they just…don’t. What’s more there are no other characters of note, because these two, at least in Genna’s memory, seem to have spent the entire first year of college consigned to their bedroom and their stifling and barren imaginations.
And the mystery of the alleged “racial assaults”? Why, Oates seems to have had enough of that in last pages of the book and just pins the whole thing on Minette, which again feels unbelievable: why would a girl who so insistently shunned everyone, go to such lengths to draw attention to herself? So her bad grades would have an excuse? I might have bought that Minette did it, or may be even Genna, except that when I got to the end there was no way I believed these characters were that spunky. Or that interesting.

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