By Joyce Carol Oates

Dutton. 436 pp. $19.95

Joyce Carol Oates is this nation's most prolific creator of letters (as opposed to popular literature). By comparison with her, even John Updike may strike us as a casual player strolling down the literary boulevard. The engine of Oates' immense talent is powered by a fecund imagination and an immense knowledge of literature, as all her writing -- both fiction and nonfiction -- makes plain. But seldom does she stop long enough to finish any piece of writing before addressing still another job.

Such is the case with "You Must Remember This," an ambitious and complicated novel that appears to have been abandoned in the first or second draft and then published without any further editing beyond checking for consistent spelling and capitalization. The punctuation is breathtakingly erratic. The narrative proportions are askew: The author frequently interrupts scenes with lengthy and intrusive flashbacks that derail the plot, and characterization and action are often attenuated by overwhelming amounts of description and exposition. The story as a whole, which is more nearly a chronicle of American life in the 1950s than a novel, is drowning in detail.

The ideal reader for this book might be an anthropologist working after the year 2050 who wonders what it felt like to live in the United States a century earlier. How did your average middle-class citizen living in Upstate New York feel about popular songs, radio serials, the Korean War, high school and college, the Eisenhower administration, the McCarthy hearings, Adlai Stevenson? How did he or she respond to the threat of nuclear war, to possessing a large, expensive automobile, to professional boxing? All these matters and more are embedded in this sprawling novel, whose sociological details are more convincing than its characters.

The action concerns three generations of a single family. Two of the three leading characters, Lyle Stevick (a secondhand-furniture dealer whose secret life improbably includes sophisticated reading) and his younger half-brother Felix (a boxer who becomes wealthy through questionable deals and gambling), derive from the second generation. Lyle's immediate family mirrors shabby but respectable middle-class life. The oldest child, Warren, is badly wounded in the Korean War and survives to become a pacifist and protester; the youngest, Enid Maria, last of three sisters, is the protagonist. She and her Uncle Felix indulge in an incestuous affair that has ruinous consequences.

The novel is marked not only by illicit sex but by the violence of war and of boxing, which brings suffering in its wake. Boxing, the subject of Joyce Carol Oates' previous book, is the subject handled best here -- but not the related criminal activities, which are merely suggested. The appetites of these people, despite their Catholic upbringing, are unchecked by morality; and in their empty world suicide is the sovereign specific to alleviate suffering.

The novel's momentum builds very slowly, and the plot takes shape only toward the end. There are memorable descriptions and sequences, occasional sharp insights, flashes of humor and pathos, and other moments approaching brilliance; but the action and themes do not cohere, many of the figures remain unrealized and the author seems only fitfully engaged.

Soon after his 40th birthday Ford Madox Ford, no slouch as a maker of books, decided to bring all his knowledge to bear in one novel, and "The Good Soldier," one of this century's greatest works of fiction, was the result. Joyce Carol Oates needs to ponder this example of the literary artist at work.

The reviewer is the editor of Sewanee Review