I'LL TAKE YOU THERE *

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco. 290 pp. $25.95

In terms of productivity, few among the literati are the equal of Joyce Carol Oates. Since 1964, she has published 85 books in every genre but self-help and cooking, many of them greeted with justifiable critical acclaim. When I showed her "Books by" page to writers of my acquaintance, they laughed aloud. Not out of any opinion about her work but in sheer awe at the way the titles cover the page. It's simply astonishing.

Sad to say, I'll Take You There bespeaks the need to slow down. The novel is crammed with the themes of female obsessiveness and self-abnegation that marked Oates's recent and superior novel Blonde, but it is both undercharacterized and overwritten. The primary emotions it evoked in this reader were annoyance and disappointment.

I'll Take You There (which evokes the chorus of a marvelous song by the '70s soul-gospel group the Staple Singers, as well as providing the novel with its last line) tells the story of Anellia, an eccentric, sorrowful student at Syracuse University in the 1960s. Anellia is not even the character's real name, although we are never told what that real name is. Her odd name is but one symbol of her desperate attempts both to be more interesting and to fit into the rigid social structures of the school. The first third of the novel is devoted to her efforts to win acceptance via her admission to the campus's most posh sorority, Kappa Gamma Pi. Here's Anellia musing on what drove her to strive for life in the holy realms of Kappa-dom:

"I was possessed by the wayward passion of one to whom passion is unknown; denied, and thwarted; if falling in love had been a game, the object of the game would have been, to me, to resist; as in chess, you might sacrifice pawns in the service of your queen; your queen was your truest self, your virgin-self, inviolable; never would you give away your queen! And so I was one whose immune system had become defenseless before the assault of a virulent micro-organism invader. My eyes, misted with emotion, purposefully failed to take in the patina of grime on the limestone walls and on the columns, or the just perceptibly rotting, mossy slates of the roof, which, iridescent when wet, in rare, blinding sunshine, were so beautiful."

Whew. The whole book is written like this. One of the hardest things about writing about obsessiveness is making it interesting and comprehensible to those who don't share the obsession. If you're not the one with the mad passion, it can become oppressively dull and repetitive. Oates has not avoided this pitfall here.

This becomes particularly bothersome in the novel's central section, which concerns Anellia's twisted affair with a black philosophy student with the improbable name of Vernor Matheius. We are told that Vernor is brilliant and a loner, but it is never made clear why Anellia falls so hard for him or stands so steadfastly by him, except that dating interracially gives her the thrill of transgression. Certainly, there is not much that is attractive about this man. While peculiar, power-based relationships like this happen every day, particularly between older men and younger women, Oates doesn't succeed in taking us along on Anellia's wild ride. We are told over and over of her passion for Vernor -- but we never feel it.

The same is true of the racial dynamics between them, as here: "Strange to me, who stared at Vernor Matheius as he slept, on rare occasions when I was privileged to see him sleep, that there were others, Caucasians, a category of individuals to which in theory I belonged, who might gaze at Vernor Matheius in his unfathomable complexity and think merely Negro. And dismiss as Negro. What madness!" There ought to be more to say about this -- or a way that it plays out between the couple beyond the standard "You don't know me, you can't know me" cliche{acute}s. One senses that Oates hoped to explore the racial tensions further -- but because of the flatness of the characters, we don't become involved in the dynamics between them. The novel simply moves, devoid of narrative drive, to a conclusion.

One finishes I'll Take You There with a great feeling of loss -- the loss of a far more interesting novel that might have been. One finishes it also with the sharp awareness of far more interesting novels that this important American writer has produced and might produce still. One finishes this novel hoping that, next time, she will take it a little more slowly -- and that she really will take us there. *

Martha Southgate is the author of the novel "The Fall of Rome," which will be published in paperback in January.