It seems to me an indication of confused priorities that Joyce Carol Oates is best known for her remarkable (and, to some, suspicious) productivity: In 20 years she has published more than 35 books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, besides laboring regularly, and well, as editor, anthologist, reviewer, and teacher. Those numbers are, to be sure, attention-getting.
If she produces all this work so easily, her detractors argue, how can it be any good? Well, who says it's easy? Maybe Oates simply works twice as hard as most other writers and sticks more diligently to each successive task at hand. (One assumes she doesn't belong to a bowling league, or attend Tupperware parties.) Anyway, readers familiar with the careers of Balzac or Henry James, not to mention Trollope, should be able to respect and appreciate what she continues to accomplish.
Furthermore, her fiction displays real rhetorical skill - although there's some truth to reviewers' claims that her style is occasionally slapdash. And, in my opinion, what's most remarkable about her oeuvre is its range and variety.
Her early stories, and novels such as ''A Garden of Earthy Delights'' (1967) and the award-winning ''Them'' (1969), are vivid, ambitious portrayals of displaced and dispossessed persons, reminiscent of Dreiser, Steinbeck, and Faulkner, heavily laden with violence and melodrama. Her analyses of such professions as me-dicine, law, and politics include intriguing books like ''Wonderland'' (1971) and ''Do With Me What You Will'' (1972) - and also the two novels that seem to me easily her worst, ''The Assassins'' (1975) and the chaotically written ''Angel of Light'' (1981). Oates has tried her hand at academic satires (''The Hungry Ghosts,'' ''Unholy Loves''), supernatural fiction (''Night-Side and Other Stories''). In her volume ''The Goddess & Other Women'' (1974), she has produced what I'd call one of the classics of contemporary feminist fiction.
In recent years, she has been experimenting with elaborate pastiches of 19 th-century novels. These include her amusing sendup of the family saga, ''Bellefleur'' (1980), and its ebullient successor, ''A Bloodsmoor Romance'' ( 1982), in which the fortunes of an eccentric extended family are shaped into a witty commentary on American ingenuity, imperialism, and injustice. And in its sardonic emphasis on men's utter ignorance of what women are really like, ''Bloodsmoor'' is, really, a rather subversive book.
Continuing to mine this promising narrative vein, Oates now gives us a ''period'' detective story, in three parts, set in the fictional Winterthurn City in upstate New York near the turn of the century. It is told in an ornate, hyperbolic style by a narrator who digresses, fusses, and lectures readers relentlessly.
Part 1, ''The Virgin in the Rose-Bower,'' involves teen-age (self-styled) ''detective'' Xavier Kilgarvan with a horrific murder committed at the ancestral home of his estranged relatives. The story begins most amusingly, with a choleric spinster's unaccountable purchase of 50 pounds of quicklime. Before the mystery is solved, we've become acquainted with a reclusive poetess and a senile epistemologist who forsakes philosophy for his ''fancy woman,'' among other vivid personalities. We are also made privy to Xavier's unrequited infatuation with his 12-year-old cousin, the enchanting, quixotic Perdita.
In Part 2, ''Devil's Half-Acre,'' which occurs 12 years later, Xavier solves a series of murders of factory girls by rejecting the entire city's conviction that the despised Jew Isaac Rosenwald is the culprit, and pursuing the jaded aristocrat whom he alone suspects. The ensuing complications involve a right-wing racist cabal known as the Brethren of Jericho, and the mystery's frustrating conclusion leaves the elusive Perdita still bafflingly beyond the faithful Xavier's reach.
Part 3, ''The Bloodstained Bridal Gown,'' returns the now-famous detective, in his 40th year, to his birthplace, following ''the infamous murders in the Grace Episcopal Rectory.'' The victims are Perdita's clergyman husband, his mother, and (it appears) his mistress, and the crime has included an assault on Xavier's beloved her-self. Once again, the diligent detective realizes that the ''scabrous personality'' under arrest for the murders is innocent, and he sets out to bring the guilty party to justice.
The novel's central point emerges clearly in this episode. Its garish climax at the disreputable Hotel Paradise - where Xavier's ''heroic optimism and . . . abiding faith in Mankind'' receive their severest tests yet - is only one among many unsettling disillusionments that convince Xavier that all problems may not be solved with impeccable logic. Confronted with endless evidence of villainy, he asks himself ''how God could allow such transgressions in His world.'' Appalled by the apparent universal triumph of vice over virtue, he feels the ground of reality shifting beneath his feet, and finds relevance at last in the philosopher Simon Esdras Kilgarvan's suspicions that the material world may not, after all, exist. As a result, Xavier retires from detection.
There are some cracks in this crowded novel's structure, some loose ends that are never firmly tied up, and a bit of a rush to conclude things as satisfactorily as is consistent with Xavier's newfound disenchantment. Some readers may feel that the three stories are less fully plotted than they might be. Except for Part 1, with its confusing, crisscdNq1o Intimations of lesbianism and vampirism, the eventual ''solutions'' are rather tame and not all that surprising.
But the book exudes inventive power and genuine good humor. Oates's deadpan recounting of knee-jerk male assumptions about ''the divers weaknesses of Woman, the general inferiority of the sex'' is nicely balanced by the novel's overall attentiveness to the spectrum of social and political changes that overtake Winterthurn City during the 24 years the story spans. There are grisly scenes aplenty, including such memorable inventions as Xavier's humbling first visit to a morgue and Oates's tricky description of a frighteningly graphic wall-and-ceiling trompe l'oeil painting.
The fruity period style, weighted with apostrophic excesses, may drive many readers away. But I found it frequently amusing and quite flexible, capable of such vivid word pictures as the description of a deranged evangelical preacher ''who prowled at night amongst the boulders, by the full moon, for what purpose no one knew. . . . (and) deliver(ed) . . . impassioned sermons to the trees, rocks, and clouds.''
The characterizations are mostly sketches, although they're certainly vivid enough. Xavier himself is a more substantial creation, a paragon of the intellectual and moral virtues, yet who never comes across as a prig.
''Winterthurn'' abounds with inspired steals from American and British history and literature: Jack the Ripper, the Rosenberg case, Emily Dickinson, Charles Brockden Brown's ''Wieland,'' and Hawthorne's ''The Blithedale Romance'' are among sources the attentive reader will find here, playfully transmogrified.
This novel is essentially an entertainment, and I'd say that anyone who can handle the slow style and can enjoy stories that develop and exfoliate at leisure should find it one of Oates's most accessible books. It's tempting to speculate on her next fictional move: Will she continue her virtuosic imitations of traditional genre novels, or return to contemporary subjects - or do both? I don't imagine we'll have to wait very long to find out.