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 the white 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.