Oates’s 30th full-length novel is one of her most bizarre and unsettling: a monotonous, only intermittently dramatic exploration of a “brilliant” young woman’s quest for certainty and human connection, undertaken at a fictional university during the just-beginning-to-be-turbulent early ’60s.
We never learn her real name. But we are given detailed glimpses into the self-punishing psyche of an upstate New York scholarship student from a fairly dysfunctional German-American farm family. In the story’s brooding opening section, pointedly titled “The Penitent,” the girl’s longings for the mother she never knew and the sister she never had impel her to seek, then throw away, membership in a prestigious sorority. Little happens in these early chapters, which are portentously adorned with quotations expressing such arcana as Spinoza’s theories about the links between knowledge and moral action. There’s even less narrative in “The Negro-Lover,” a laborious account of “Anellia’s” (for this is the fictional name she gives herself) obsessive relationship with black philosophy student Vernor Mathieus, another of those soulless intellectuals who keep popping up in Oates’s novels in order to confuse the women who unaccountably adore them. The final section, “The Way Out,” contains more promising material: Anellia’s discovery that her vagrant father, long presumed dead, is in fact clinging to life, though dying of cancer, in Utah. She dutifully arrives there, to be informed by the “hunchbacked little doll-woman” who cares for him that she may speak to her father but is not permitted to look at him. Alas, Oates never develops this situation, and the novel trails off into an inconclusiveness that is momentarily vitiated by a surprising final sentence that suggests the otherwise unspecified character of the unnamed protagonist’s “narrative.”
One senses that Oates is working through deeply personal material here. I’ll Take You There may in fact hold important clues to the autobiographical impulses that appear partially to generate and shape her fiction—but it isn’t much of a novel.