A painful tale of race relations

Joyce Carol Oates tackles the ache of white liberal guilt.

Sometimes, you just wish she'd slow down a little. Even by the standards of the Speedy Gonzales of the literary world, 2006 has been a prolific one for Joyce Carol Oates. She kicked off the year with "The Female of the Species," a poisoned vat of mystery and horror pieces, immediately followed by "High Lonesome," an impressive collection of 35 stories (11 of them new), as well as a thriller written under her pseudonym Lauren Kelly, and a Young Adult novel. Now, it's October, and what could have been a stunning examination of race relations and white liberal guilt on a college campus, Black Girl/White Girl, instead feels a little, well, rushed.

Generva "Genna" Meade is the "white girl" of the title. Ignored and undervalued by her parents – a crusading liberal lawyer and a drugged-out hippie – she's nonetheless a child of privilege. She's a scion of the wealthy Quaker family who founded the college she attended in the mid-1970s. For 15 years, she's been haunted by the death of her roommate, Minette Swift, their freshman year. The daughter of a preacher in Washington, D.C., Minette is self-absorbed, intolerant, and stubbornly ungrateful for her scholarship, the constant excusing of her academic failures, and the persistent (almost stalkerlike) overtures of her roommate, who wants to be Minette's friend.

Genna's been raised to believe that African-American culture is superior to her own racist, hypocritical one. ("...so good for Genna to have such a friend, to be exposed to unique individuals not racial stereotypes.") But her motives for befriending Minette have a selfish undercurrent: She's hoping to make her radical (and mostly absent) dad proud of her. Throughout the novel, she fantasizes that he'll come to visit her, and she can parade her African- American roommate for his approval. Also, given that her dad walked out on their family when she was 10, declaring that "the family is extinct," and that her mother has told her that "love is an illusion of the ego," it's not surprising that she would gaze longingly on Minette's stable family.

Minette, understandably, wants nothing to do with Genna – and, indeed, has trouble recognizing her outside their room. Then incidents begin to pile up around Minette: a broken window, a vandalized book. The attacks take on a racist cast. Minette spirals into a depression, while Genna tries to tidy the mess and protect her roommate, feeling hideously guilty all the while. "I was sick with worry, she would see into my soul: she would see my guilt and misread it. For I was behaving like a guilty person."

This is not to say that Genna is innocent: As Minette pushes her away, Genna becomes frantic, following Minette and reading her journal. When "the sudden wish comes over Minette to shove this white-girl Genna away with the heel of her hand, hard," readers will kind of wish she had.

At the same time, Minette's prickly defensiveness and pride make her an outcast, "a black girl who refuses to act black." At one point, Genna's chief suspect in the terrorizing of her roommate is another African-American girl. When a copy of the "Hottentot Venus" is shoved under their door, Genna remarks, "I would wonder if the act hadn't been purely personal, aimed against Minette Swift as an individual, and not 'racist.' Yet how swiftly and crudely the personal becomes the racial! As if, beneath ordinary hatred, there is a deeper, more virulent and deadly racial hatred to be tapped."

Oates has said that the plot is based on actual events from the 1970s. She's taken on an impressive challenge, even without making both girls so very unpleasant. But then she ups the ante too far, weaving in a second plot about Genna's dad (whose one note is strident pompousness) and his history with counterculture terrorists that ultimately consumes the ending and leaves Minette's death a footnote.

At different moments, the book reminded me of two better recent novels, Zadie Smith's beguiling "On Beauty," and Sigrid Nunez's memorable "The Last of Her Kind," also a novel about 1970s counterculture and two college roommates. But where Nunez's novel was a fully realized portrait, "Black Girl/White Girl" feels episodic and fragmentary – a collage of a tragedy.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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