I’LL TAKE YOU THERE by Joyce Carol Oates

As reviewed by Mario Savioni


Basically, I would do anything to enter a woman I found attractive, even buying a book by Joyce Carol Oates, called I’ll Take You There, because I want to know the inner workings, the tinkering, and the key that cracks the safe.


What’s going on in the woman’s mind?


On the cover of Oates’ book are neck-to-just-below-the-crotch shots of two women both, it seems in taffeta.


One is in purple, a long dress with a stitch line just below her breasts and then the fabric crosses her chest and across the other side like an X, where one side is hidden.


She is carrying a red and purple bouquet and the other girl, in fuchsia, is wearing a similar dress but the line is across her nipple. There is a lemon-yellow and green bouquet.


I walked into Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA, USA, quickly browsed the novels on the table and of course I was brought to these women on the cover. The brightness, the sense of color and lust accomplished.


They didn’t have to have faces, the fact that their arms were thin and supple, that they seemed young and innocent, satisfied me.


They stood before me, like other women do; I never see them really except below the neck because I am too shy to look them in the eyes.


This is not always the case, like today. I was riding down a bike path and a young woman was coming toward me on her bike.


I decided I would only look into her eyes as she was passing. As I did, she smiled warmly.


It was a gentle tenderness and I wanted to stop to tell her thank you, but I know that would have probably changed the mood and raised her suspicions. Maybe she wouldn’t have said hello to the next person.


Anyway, she rode away in the opposite direction and I haven’t seen her since.

Oates’ character Mary Alice said that at nineteen on a “Hilly and windy ravaged university campus,” she “unraveled among strangers like one of her cheap Orlon sweaters.”


I am trying to get my mind around this statement. It says so much about the protagonist, especially when you consider that the protagonist says that she destroyed the sorority house mother or that the house mother destroyed the protagonist. You picture a conflict of wills leading to a downfall and one of them having a psychological breakdown.


“Unraveling among strangers,” I never had this occasion being that I lived off campus; I never had the experience of living in a dorm while I went to school. I had to work through my academic career. I don’t think I’ve ever fit in. (p.6)


Oates then begins talking about the sorority house of the protagonist, the history and how the protagonist casts a coveting glance: “I would often walk far out of my way to pass the house from below; I was a pledge by this time, yet not a ‘sister’; I drifted lovesick and yearning gazing up at the somber, ivy-covered façade, at the tall white columns in my imagination.” These floating letters of her sorority house “filled her with wonder, aw.” She would be transformed she said of her protagonist to lie in such a mansion.


Oates says of her protagonist that she was a woman prone to a ceaseless dissatisfaction and this relates to her joining a sorority house of grandeur.


“Mary Alice,” as the house mother – Ms. Thayer has come to call the protagonist, comes to the discovery that in her helping a drunken “glamorous popular senior with brash good looks, infectious laughter and ‘personality,” she is seen with indifference and these strangers are imperious to her. She is “fated to recall the sting of a rude drunken rebuff for a lifetime.


So what is it like to be privy to the motivation of our protagonist? She wanted nothing more, at that moment, than to “touch the hot humid body” of a glamorous and popular girl with blond hair.


She wanted sisters of her own. She had no mother, only older brothers who were too far off in the distance of age to matter. (p. 19) the effect of her mother’s late-at-life pregnancy that killed her due to a caesarian that never healed or her breasts milk laden that developed tiny pebble cysts and one day grew tighter and tighter until they broke and were unmendable (p. 18).


How does this play into the knowledge of women, into their tinkering that they too, like men are affected by life’s events?


For the protagonist, I wouldn’t know how a man could work this angle nor would I care to except that if in equivalence, my father’s death could compare? I cried for hours on the day I knew. Uncles, aunts in the dark apartment wore sun glasses. Ever since then, I lack confidence, interviewing for jobs frightens me, and I am forever crippled to anything requiring self-confidence. So, I guess if Oates’ Mary Alice was equally affected, I could offer her praise and seek to encourage her in her dreams. That’s the tinkering.


In the case of her wanting sisters I guess you could construe that she’d also want a big family to keep her company. This face or missive would certainly complicate any romantic interlude that I would want extended. She’d want babies; I’d want silence and my own peace. That’s the beauty of this analysis; you begin to see the rough equivalence required that might bring you a table.


She lived a hard life, her father gone for weeks, even months and so she was forced to live with her grand parents in a cold-weather climate.


Her grandmother said her mother died to have her.


She wanted badly to be loved by her father, who barely knew her, so inebriated by the loss of his wife, Mary Alice would be happy to have his huge feet on her own or to run into him in the dark hallway if for no other reason than to be with him. But she said he was not eager to be with her. Not only did she kill her mother, she thought, but she had no mediator between herself and him.


As Mary Alice acknowledges, “There was no way for him to comprehend her.”


Mary Alice said that she did not hear her father’s warning that if she didn’t like his smoking she could leave. She didn’t hear him per se; children are resourceful, deaf, and blind. They smile amid hostility; they turn it into love.


This reminds me of a girl who had been hired at the company I work for. She went around from man to man making her pitch for a love exchange. She said she wanted babies. She was at least twenty years my junior, and luckily I had the balls to tell her no repeatedly. She was a psychological monster seeking acceptance. Luckily, I never took advantage of her and she eventually found a man of her own, who did take advantage of her.


But, then she was capable of turning hostility into love. I told her the other day, with her job seeming to come to an end that, “Maybe now he will marry you.”


She responded emphatically: “No, he would not.” She understood the paradox. She understood herself in the quagmire of her needs. They were too much for a serious glance to cure.


Most of us are carrying this internal baggage, whether men or women and sometimes despite the obvious breech of a perfect union perceived as in the main union of “A Monster’s Ball,” it ends up becoming two people who need each other so much that they come together like a rubber band pulled to its limits and then snapped together.


Then, beautifully, Mary Alice announces, over some time without knowing where her father has gone and not asking because she thought it strategic, he comes to her graduation, where she gave her valedictory speech first tremulous then strength-gathered and he, with blood shot eyes but not drunk, missing teeth, hugged her and exclaimed, “Like her, you are.”


She was a smart as a whip he added, just like her mother. He said, “Don’t sell yourself short; don’t let no fuckers sell you short.”


So, that’s the male perspective, that men are a bunch of fuckers and their only purpose is to get a woman pregnant and kill her in the process.


Was this the tinkering, a willingness to receive the wicked curse of seed. What happens to a woman that she opens herself as a receptacle to a man’s invention? What does she want out of life? What does she see as its purpose? What are her feelings beyond the need for love that was never fulfilled as a child and thus is brought forth as need unsatisfied?


Oates’ description of the initiating ceremony of sorority pledges to which she was a part seemed to belittle Mary Alice, cropped up with deep emotions that left her no protection from the slightest torture of darkness and blindfold.


I am not sure it says anything more about women than that they are fragile, easily moved to tears, soft, limp laundry fainting onto the concrete floor. (p.35)


On page 36, Mary Alice remarks that she just dove into the pledging life knowing in the back of her mind that to do so meant that she would not be able to afford it.


This is an important point about women, in general, they live in this giddy dream world with inconsequential takes, thinking some Prince Albert or Henry is going to ride up on a white pony and scoop them up. These are the beginnings of prostitution, where women set themselves up for economically sound men, who no matter how ugly, appeal to these women who have dabbled in baby birth or hot shopping, who have never settled down to the fact that “Girls [who] just want to have fun” face grim realities. They enter realms based on vanity that corner them in poverty and begin to breed the stupid, unquestioning whores that they are.


By not standing on your own, you lose control of your voice and you become a problem, and not the solution. She admits: “I was in terror of losing my ability to reason.”


Mary Alice didn’t realize perhaps that in her counting pennies and fearing exposure she had become what vanity trawlers usually end up being. The opposite of what they had hoped they would become.


You see it begins with the ego as Soulmates by Carolyn Godschild Miller once remarked, if we can abandon that little quirk of self-satisfaction, we would set ourselves free. We want so badly to gain acceptance that we forget ourselves along the way, but perhaps as my mother said, “It was all those women you loved who brought you such good stories.”


Mary Alice joins another expensive sorority to which she remarks, “If I’d investigated, I would have discovered other sororities far more suited for my situation.” (p. 43)


Mary Alice remarks that sexy wasn’t a word, even uttered in those days except as a murmur in undertone (p. 47) and yet today, as with everyday I saw the indentation of a nipple and its areola thinly veiled behind a woman’s Tee, those thin straps and it was like a button you didn’t even have to push, for the whole enthralling psychological impulse to follow. I wanted to follow into the beltway and onto the line of the halter that would add fleshly pink-brown color to her pressure points, now lodged into my mind in everlasting murmur.


On page 48, Mary Alice admits to what men exasperate like breath, that we too only think in terms of the sexy. Our every thought is tied distinctly to the engagement of the act. It is tied to us like our smiles are tied to our feelings that are tied to our desires and our smiles are meant to make us less intimidating and as women have told us in so many words, that humor lessens the brunt of us, lightens the load of our hands on their shoulders.


The entire field of sensations that rise up like boiling water is cooled by the fear that we are on the same wave-length as the other person, crowned by some other visual.


We are the predators of little girls, housemother Thayer instilled in her sexy creatures, none of whom should succumb to the “Hot little spurts: semen.”


Mary Alice said, “Sex was a tide…that could wash over a girl and destroy her… men were primed to discharge this tide.”


Mary Alice throws her books at a man, who told her not to run or it would hurt her titties (p. 51). She knew instinctively this was the man who had accosted some other girls in the fraternity. Because she was from the ice-edged town, daughter of a man who’d lost his wife to her, she threw her books at his face immediately knocking his glasses off. He limped across the park and out of vision. She had won.


She announced his title as sex offender and did not touch the spectacles she’d picked up from the ground with gloved hands. She mailed the glasses to Syracuse police and that was it.


Men are dangerous animals. Creatures equal in their contemplation with sexual carnivores, but one was guilty and one was innocent. It all depended on the feelings. One was ravenous, one was afraid.


Mary Alice remarks about her communion with God and how she knew of him to be close to her when she took the blame for the disheveled magazines or the food taken from Ms. Thayer. Mary Alice wasn’t much of a religious person and she thought of him (p.56) as “It began to happen…” he touched her in unspeakable ways…”


It actually sounds like Joyce Carol Oates explains that the girls were pressured to become engaged before graduation, married before they were twenty-two and mothers before twenty-three.


I was married at 25. I had married because I swooned over my wife. She was a goddess and gifted. But, inherently I knew the show was over before it began.


I was never happy in my work and knew I’d never find it, this allusive satisfaction other people got early on, like my father, who my aunts said was cutting up their dolls and then cats before he was in high school. He’d told my mother, one must find work, a wife, and a house, and in that order. I found a house, and still at 44 nothing else.


I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember and I wanted a wife even longer.


Apparently, they do not work together, especially when you consider that the women I would love were like Mary Alice’s would-be mothers.


God separated Mary Alice almost by force. There was nothing she could do. She was born into this abandonment, where poverty strangled her chances, where her brain just would not work in the realm the world was accustomed.


She knew the words:


“Hey c’mon kitch let’s go to bed

            I got a small comb

To scratch ya head.” (p. 66)



Mary Alice was too emotional, she took life too seriously. It made the professor nervous; no one would sit near her. Finally the class had ended and even though he could not answer her questions about God and said that he would see her after class, he managed to distract himself with another student who approached him.


As she walks back to the castle and she looks among the trees in memory of the man who groped her titties, she reveals the weakness that men have “Sentimental notions of girls.” But what is that I ask? What is the notion of a girl except as some short pleated skirt with a pair of nylon panties pressed against the leaky faucet of her mustached lips, uncontrollable in their urgings, flush with turgidity and convulsive chattering, like testes fluctuating as marbles in a hand, anticipatory, rolling, circulating envious of time, undisciplined and repetitive.


Women were just like men in that they too were ruled by their gonads, postulated by their supreme desires that capitulated all civility when the churning emotion matched the mind’s curiosity.


I notice here that perhaps the only difference between women and men is that they are the same until they are trained. (p.78)


“Remember,” Mary Alice said, “We are grimly warned, you are a Kappa.”


Mary Alice revealed too that the purpose of women was to reproduce, which could be said of men. (p. 79)


What Mary Alice addresses in her discovery of Ms. Thayer’s room is what she noted also as her father, “Unshaven, in an undershirt (p. 91) and soiled work trousers” sat alone at a table, in a room where every other room was dark except for his. She said, “Where he is, no one can go.”


What Mary Alice discovers about both men and women is the race to defeat loneliness that we both follow, to find companionship with someone acceptable to ourselves and seemingly to others, who is not the byproduct of our desperation and our fears.


She said alcoholism was a condition of the soul, as if it were something other than our own dispositions proof of perspectives that could only conclude alcohol or otherwise, that if we were left to ponder the wrath of our existence, the numbers would come up empty.


Alcohol really had nothing to do with it, neither did it have anything to do with our allocations, whether penises or cunts, a small room or a large, perfumed drawers, or motorcycle in parts on the floor. What we sought daily was some sustenance for the inherent sadness our souls felt, whether alone with our guests to be better or alone in our guests to survive our horrific natures that hand their own slow crushing demise. Each year was another wake-up call and despite Mary Alice’s statement, “Where he is,” she surely would follow.


Mary Alice had an infatuation; it seems, like all of us. She’d even followed him home, canvassed his house in increments into the double digits. It was swooning, implausible penetration of the eyes into someone’s indifferent stare, peering over her head, perhaps looking to her side thinking no-not-what except that she must have been invisible. He never knew she was outside looking for him, if he had known he would have met her, her raw female yearning for his ever ready penile platitudes.


Mary Alice talks of men, her brothers, as examples, and how they held themselves in approval of women who were their visual satisfiers.


She says that women felt alone, while men’s sympathies are with men; but that his judgments of women, for example, were forged in a collective consciousness, and he could feel what other men were thinking as they all, in spirit, grabbed themselves.


There were triggers, common characteristics certain women possessed that got this curtain call of a man’s fingers pulling at the skin of their crotch.


She liked that she could stink, did not shave her legs, and that she could let the curly Q’s of hair grow in her underarms. She had long, “hard-muscled legs,” which to me would have won a great number of admirers. (p. 109)


(p. 116) Oates describes a male Negro boy Mary Alice had fallen in love with, even before she’d seen his face, his voice filled her heart, but she goes on to describe his Negro features as those elements making up a “work of art.”


And so as a man with no particular control over the sound of my voice, nor of the words that come to mind, I sense already the bleak chance of attraction Mary Alice would have, and please do not misunderstand me, but I am of the opinion that attraction, like intelligence is set and nonfluctuating, baring the influence of toxins or troubled waters and I admit the ridiculousness of her probable age and my own as socially incompatible. Even love has its limitations.


Mary Alice then argues that Vernor Matheius’ voice, language and intelligence were the dominant characteristic overshadowing her inherent apology in her perception of him as a work of art.


Then she makes this amazing statement: “Vernor Matheius chose his characteristics; he was a black American male.” Mary Alice said that she had not chosen anything. Vernor Matheius could spar intellectually with an accomplished philosophy professor often to the older man’s humiliation.


“Whom we love helplessly we love, too, to betray: any connection is thrilling.” (p. 120)


I remember I loved a woman, and to betray her also was joy, to hear any sound of her name was to be driven to a heightened state, like looking at calendars of Japanese tea gardens. She was hauntingly graceful with a figure like a long, straight gown without interruption, arms like long stems of white lilies and her movements through space were like the bowing before royalty – that whole movement of submission before regality was how I felt in her presence.


At one point, my only contact with her was her signature on the paid-out list at the hotel’s operator room. I would flip the pages just to get a glance at the freshest evidence. I would stare at her name until it was obvious I was lingering too long. I still have letters she wrote me on blue post-it notes where she breaks down the payments she owed me. The memory of this woman is as delicate as edible rice paper. Her touch, now just a thought, lingers like the petal of Hibiscus at night under a neon glow.


Mary Alice said that she grew to distrust “Mere emotion…the world of her father’s drifting cigarette smoke.”


She was in a dream with Vernor Matheius at her knees. She did not want to become pregnant but he slew her. She was a shape-shifter of dreams intensely adrift and without control of her movements to intercept him.


I was correct in the dedication of my book. I had said the women I have loved defined me. Mary Alice said it is bit differently, “For each of our lovers invents us anew.” (p. 152)


I am currently debating the expectation of a new relationship formed via The girl I met there and I have had four dates, maybe five. I am tempted to call it off by explaining:


“Last night you invited me to a party, where we seemed to drift in and out of each other’s company.  Then a man, your friend, arrived while we were talking to a group in the kitchen. He left the room to go outside to get his food. I saw you sitting next to him as friends do, your excuse to leave the group was that he didn’t know anybody, but then neither did I.


“As you sat, your feet were on the chair. You were giddy, your eyes aflutter with his words. I thought for a second how I should not have gone downstairs; but I did anyway. You were maintaining two theaters of conversation. Mine was a nonverbal explanation as to how you felt about him and yours was a close adherence to someone I did not know. We watched fireworks, the four of us, including another friend of yours, a female. I knew she approved of me. It was cold that night at the water’s edge, looking through the fog in the distance. I felt like a third wheel and when you and he announced simultaneously that you were not democrats; I remembered the assertion by a tribe member that relationships form around camaraderie. Yes, he was your comrade. You’d traveled with him before, he knew of your trip to Sacramento. You had a strong friendship. You even admired his scientific background. You said: ‘If only my Lymy brain could still calculate’ what he was addressing. You were standing next to him while your female friend was complaining about the cold. When I’d looked over, you and she were holding each other and he was merely standing to the side.


“I went over and embraced you and your girlfriend in the middle. I got to kiss you and hold you as we were walking back to the car, but then you said as we were leaving: ‘This is no reflection on you, but I need my day tomorrow.’ [I was crushed.]


“We had made plans to spend that day together because I was going to Chicago for a week the day after, when you were having two dinner parties, one after the other.


“So I thought to myself: This relationship is going nowhere. It isn’t meeting my needs. It felt awkward from the start, there never really was passion.


“So, I am back to my old ways, reading books at Barnes and Noble, following threads on-line.


“I think what I’ve realized is that relationships are based on need. If someone needs you, and you need them, you come together.”


Mary Alice said of Vernor Matheius that she would not be a woman who diminished a man’s laughter (p. 154). I thought of my four-date girlfriend and noticed very little laughter we had shared. She didn’t need me. She wasn’t interested. She’d never cared to read my book nor Goggle me.


But, then I guess it was fair to say that I never listened to her tapes on programs she had directed for the National Radio Project. We were even, and there was no laughter. (p. 158)


While Mary Alice goes on about her Negro-loving state, I do not see how this applies to what women want, in general, except that at times they do not care what others may think.


Mary Alice (p.162) talks of her visualizing Vernor Matheius and Ida, on a bridge; they were comparable. They told her something about herself, they told her what she wanted and they could, in turn, reveal what I wanted to know.  


What is it that her man symbolizes? What does he represent that she needs? She speaks of what it was that philosophy gave her: Its structure left no play with unruly emotions. Things were conceivable, staid, not running amok.


At this point (by page 209) I‘d gotten fed up with Oates’ preponderance for taking us down the lily-white-black alley. Her apologetics seemed trite, a bit old-schooled. Mary Alice’s journey through the predicament of Vernor Matheius was beginning to bore me. What did she want from men, in general, except that I knew Vernor Matheius’ grasp of what she revered.


So that’s it, a woman wants a man who is like a teacher, a profound indulger in what he knew by instinct he could not abandon.


He was cruel to her, but he was not unkind and careless when he first saw that Mary Alice was there for him and what that might entail. She stood by him because he represented the truth although that was life on a mattress that sunk in the middle.


Mary Alice saw in Vernor Matheius the voice of the future. She saw in him everything rent asunder except his eyes and his voice. He was alive in the fire of his certainty. His very existence: Black, unkempt, living in squalor, undaunted by opinion, attacked but still kicking, a political nonparticipant on any level except intellectual, and she loved him for it.


She loved his hair, his nakedness, his moodiness, and his long avenues of thought and certainly she loved how he didn’t really need her. He was separate; although I am sure he loved her body, her whiteness, the conquest of her submission.


Still, that bothered him. He knew the goodness he must adhere to if he were to remain faithful to his ideals; this perhaps is what he had? The professor, who couldn’t take him for his moral rectitude was based on a lifetime of temptations versus Vernor Matheius’ new dance on the floor of youth. Sure it was easy for him, he wasn’t in decline.


I begin to see in Mary Alice’s rebuke of the Dean for racial remarks that while she is proud of herself for Vernor, she is also proud of herself period for having stood up for what she believed. Vernor perhaps proved a mentor and at this point in her life that is what she sought in a man.


P. 215, I begin to see my fallacy in having gotten jealous of my current girlfriend. She too, like Mary Alice, only wanted love, not question marks.


“I am not a man for any woman to count on. Not a man who wants to be loved.


“But: love me.” [These are notes at the top of a chapter, p. 215, which Oates’ writes of Vernor Matheius, which signify perhaps a subtext that shapes how one should perceive of him.]


I am back again, contemplating what women want. And I see in the midst of traveling on an airliner, I am observing a family: Two boys, a girl, husband and wife. I’d have to say that my impression of what “Eve” which is what her name is, would like that her children’s needs are attended to, like an appeasement amid their questions and demands, and who knows if she can even think of herself.


With the constant barrage, her children are busy asking her and responding to their impulses clamoring to fill the void of their insecurities and amazement. Amid the newness of it all, Eve rests for a moment. Her eyes close and she reminds herself that at nightfall, her rest will come, and then at some point shortly thereafter she will remember that it will not be enough.


What could a woman want in the context of the wonder and exhaustion of raising children? But she seeks to inspire them in the corral of her eagle eyes and to protect them. She seeks to facilitate their learning and smiles watching over them like a woman amazed by her life.


Today (p. 218) I wrote to a woman friend that I had met a woman who would be busy until September. I told her I would wait for the new woman. It sounded like an old story. I had dated a flight attendant who flew from town to town and had said the same words.


What was I to believe? Why is there always this waiting? Then I realize as is so often the case that I must remember that life is a lesson, not a playground.


Still, I am tired. What I told the friend is that all I wanted to do was fuck someone until that was the last thing I wanted to do.


And I still don’t know what it is that a woman wants.


Frankly, it never seems that they want me. Not the same gargling need to wear their glistening vaginal fluid like a mask to diminish acne.


In Being and Time, which Mary Alice mentions, it is said that “Its weight of language that is as significant as meaning; yet the paradox of language is that there can be no single language, only languages – ‘The tragic paradox is, each speaks and hears a language unlike any other.’”


So Vernor Matheius asked the question I have so wanted the answer to: “What do you want from me, Anellia? [Which is a name Mary Alice gives herself to appear exotic.]”


Mary Alice answers quickly and directly something that makes perfect sense because it is the same answer a man in love might give his lover:


“Only to be with you…” p. 225


Those words are as pathetic as when I have said them to the women I have swooned over.  They left me open and vulnerable. Each time I was taken advantage of after I had said them.


“When you step into history, history’s boot steps on you.” P.226


“If you fail to step into history, history erases you.”


So Vernor Matheius sends Mary Alice away, excuses her, uses his lies against her, and finds something to blame the unblamable for. How sickly sweet.


“So my ancestors sold their brother and sister Africans into slavery and they flourished for a while until it came their turn to be slaves.” P. 238


“Vernor, you aren’t your ancestors anymore than I am my ancestors.” P. 238


P. 255, I think too that in this particular case Mary Alice wanted from her father to be acknowledged, to be loved and that she made every effort to be there, to be nearby so that if she came to him, he might utter it. For that is what this particular woman wanted. She wanted her father to say that he loved and approved of her and that is why she would drive twenty-five hundred miles in a rickety Volkswagen Beetle to see him.


Tell her “How beautiful her book was, and that you loved her.” P. 255


P. 262, Mary Alice quotes Nietzsche, who said: “We have lived this life and this hour, many times; we have not yet been defeated; we are strong enough to endure; we must only say yes.”


Hildie, Mary Alice’s father’s girlfriend paraphrased the words her father had told her after the Valedictorian speech: “Don’t let the bastards hurt her in love.”


What did Mary Alice want but to complete her family, to wave about the human shapes into a corral of love and tenderness? She only wanted hope and love, to fulfill her dreams and enjoy life.


I’LL TAKE YOU THERE by Joyce Carol Oates


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