Joyce Carol Oates is masterful at depicting ugliness, and the list of what is ugly in her world seems endless: the smell of unwashed flesh with its grease and pimples, overflowing trash, ill-fitting clothes, dying canals gleaming with toxins, the indignity of the female body and its processes. Moreover, there's the ugliness of her characters' dark, unspeakable and sometimes murderous impulses. The Bryn Mawr-like campus in her latest novel, though pretty enough to an outsider, partakes of this general ugliness.
As one might guess from the book's title, the perversity of American race relations is one of the themes of Black Girl/White Girl. It's the mid-1970s and Genna, a descendent of the school's founder and the child of burnt-out, ex-hippie parents, has asked to be placed in a suite with an African-American girl. The girl is Minette, whom Genna comes to idolize despite the fact that Minette's a singularly unpleasant, and in the end, unbalanced, piece of work. She's sarcastic, bitter, closed off even from the few other black girls in the school, and has a touch of religious fanaticism about her her father is a minister. She's also intolerably lonely and lost, for even Oates' monsters have a side to them that calls forth sympathy. But Genna seems to be enchanted by nothing more than the color of Minette's skin, and her background as a scholarship student. She sees Minette not as a person, but as a symbolic black girl overcoming oppression. This reader figures that if Genna saw Minette for who she really was, she'd have nothing to do with her and ask for a transfer.
Oates has been tackling race relations on and off for decades, which makes her no less brave for doing so again. We enjoy, with a pleasurable, familiar pain, her descriptions of the ugly, the sad, the things that most Americans would rather not look at. Black Girl/White Girl is another success for its author. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.