Picks and Pans Review: You Must Remember This

updated 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Joyce Carol Oates

Some of Oates's novels make a reader think of other writers' books. At crucial moments in You Must Remember This, there are reminders of Faulkner's The Wild Palms (there is an abortion), Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (involving a woman's triumph after a humiliating sexual obsession) and Joyce's Ulysses (with its ending made up of a soliloquy about sex). That Oates, 49, lives in a world of literature sometimes makes her fiction seem artificial, but it is nonetheless compelling. In this novel, her 46th book, Oates focuses on a Catholic family in northern New York State in the 1950s. At 9, Enid Stevick is taken by her father to see his younger brother, Felix, fight in the ring. She is sickened, stunned and finally obsessed by her uncle, who is more than twice her age. Eventually Felix manages to get out of the fight game with his handsome looks intact and some solid investments. Enid's father runs a used-furniture store. One of Enid's sisters has a conventional marriage; another becomes a nightclub singer. Their brother is wounded in Korea. Then he becomes a Democratic Party worker, primarily, it seems, so Oates can remind us that in the '50s Ike was elected, the Rosenbergs were executed, McCarthy was noisy and a few people opposed atomic bomb testing. Oates's manipulation of her characters sometimes suggests she may have become a writer because the very act gives her a sense that she is in control. She certainly understands characters who must have a sense of control in their lives—in this case a gun in a bedside table "which he liked seeing there but which he didn't touch" may be enough for Felix. Equally as profound, Oates also shares with Enid's brother, Warren, the understanding that " 'love' seems to carry with it no knowledge. The people I have loved most in my lifetime...I haven't known at all. Nor have they known me." (Dutton, $19.95)

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