Oates takes on a huge task in this novel, attempting not only to penetrate the ever-present veil of race relations in American society, but also the heady politics of the Vietnam War era, through the characters of two emotionally skewed young women, one black and one white.
We are told at the very beginning that this tale is written by 33-year-old Genna Meade (the white girl) as an “untitled text” about an incident that had happened 15 years earlier. Genna grew up in the 60s in a sprawling old home owned by parents Maximilian “Mad Max” Meade and her mother Veronica. Max is a fire-breathing defense lawyer for the radical anti-war movement and Veronica has burnt out many of her cerebral synapses with one too many acid trips. Max is forever disappearing and reappearing, and the house is forever filled with strange young men (and some women) passing through on their way to Canada or the Weather underground. Drugs and sex are everywhere, and little parental attention is paid to the children of the family. Genna’s brother Rickie escapes at age 16, while little Genna grows up with a serious worship/hate complex toward her larger-than-life father and with a healthy paranoia about FBI surveillance of her family.
18-year-old Genna goes off to Schuyler College founded by her famous great-grandfather, a renowned abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad, and is intrigued to learn that her roommate is the black daughter of a prominent D.C. evangelical preacher who is at Schuyler on a merit scholarship. Determined to make Minette her best friend, thereby winning the admiration of her largely absent father, Genna discovers that Minette is a sullen, brusque, uber-religious, unfriendly and rather unlikeable snob who not only rejects Genna’s offer of friendship, but turns pretty much everyone against her. Genna leaps to Minette’s defense time and again, bending over backwards to accommodate her roommate’s antagonisms and swallowing her insults. When anonymous racial harassment against Minette begins, the liberal school goes into paroxysms of guilt and recrimination, Minette grows more intolerable while Genna grows more desperate to befriend her.
Things—and mental states–devolve rapidly after this, until tragedy strikes and Genna has a total breakdown. By that time, I think I was ready for one myself. The novel sort of winds down at this point, with the tying up of a few loose ends but little real introspection, suggesting that Oates had either run out of things to say or just run out of steam. In either case, I was left unsatisfied and feeling more than a little depressed. The squirmy feeling I got reading her book had less to do with the worthwhile issues she examines than with the unpalatable protagonists she chooses to tell her story.