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Spellbinding saga of a family buffeted by its place and time

The Falls A Novel Joyce Carol Oates Ecco/HarperCollins: 482 pp., $26.95

September 13, 2004|Charlotte Innes | Special to The Times

The opening words of Joyce Carol Oates' fine new novel, "The Falls," are as clipped as any legal document. "At the time unknown, unnamed, the individual who was to throw himself into the Horseshoe Falls appeared to the gatekeeper of the Goat Island Suspension Bridge at approximately 6:15 A.M." This is Oates' first and last attempt to place the reader on firm narrative ground. Before the end of the page, anxiety builds. The air near the falls is "agitated and damp, abrasive as fine steel filings in the lungs." A few paragraphs later, the reader is placed right inside one of several cataracts comprising Niagara Falls -- with 3,000 tons of water pouring over the gorge per second. "Here, your veins, arteries, the minute precision and perfection of your nerves will be unstrung in an instant.... Every shadow and echo of every memory erased." In the aftermath of the opening suicide, the horrified gatekeeper considers the falls' fatal attraction: "Like we're sick of ourselves. Mankind. This is the way out, only a few have the vision."

Oates is well-known, often decried, for focusing on violent or taboo topics -- most recently, sexual assault in "Rape: A Love Story," and drugs, anti-Semitism and domestic violence in "The Tattooed Girl" -- as well as for writing genre fiction. Certainly, there is violence in "The Falls." And Oates uses narrative strategies familiar from her other recent novels -- the family saga ("We Were the Mulvaneys," "What I Lived For") and historical adaptation ("Blonde," a reworking of Marilyn Monroe's life) -- in tracking the ups and downs of the fictional Burnaby family against the mid-20th century backdrop of Love Canal, one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. "The Falls" also has the tension of suspense fiction and the melodrama of a gothic novel, but it's coupled with psychological insight and astute social commentary, proving that Oates, in her best work, continues to defy categorization.

Few critics remember that Oates also writes poetry. Yet it is the fluid rhythms and the precision of poetry that lift "The Falls" far beyond its traditional framework. Oates sustains the heightened lyricism and the semi-mystical tone of the opening chapter for almost 500 pages in a frenzied, shaman-like attempt to hypnotize and seduce the reader -- just as the fictive citizens in the novel fall under the spell of Niagara Falls' roaring water. The falls become symbolic of the way people are sucked into the dramas of their lives, seemingly in thrall to powerful invisible influences -- psychological, social and, most important for this book, mystical.

Oates uses religious imagery throughout. The heroine, Ariah, is the prickly, musically talented daughter of a minister. When her new husband, Gilbert, also a minister (and clearly confused over his sexual orientation) jumps to his death the day after they marry, Ariah considers herself "damned." From then on, she expects the worst of life. In an echo of Adam and Eve's fall from the Garden of Eden, characters plunge to their doom -- literally (like Gilbert); spiritually, like the crooked city officials; or fatefully, like the victims of Love Canal, a local neighborhood built on a cancer-causing chemical waste site. Ariah's second husband, Dirk Burnaby, a good-hearted lawyer whom Oates invents to do the groundwork for the Love Canal case, is labeled "the Peacemaker" or "savior," and, like Christ, he suffers for his good works. He is paired with a Mary Magdalene figure, an activist in part modeled on real-life activist Lois Marie Gibbs, whose books Oates consulted, according to the novel's acknowledgments. The noxious air and poisoned ground of the canal are clearly meant to represent a kind of moral rot as well as humanity's destruction of the planet.

If the final third of "The Falls" seems to slow a little, that too is deliberate, as the novel moves symbolically downstream from the thunderous falls to calmer waters, from death to renewal. Oates shows through the tribulations of the Burnabys and the successful activism of Love Canal residents that it's possible to overcome the weight of family history, as well as powerful economic and political interests, and to bring into harmony conflicting human impulses to cause pain or do good. The falls are seen as a remarkable natural wonder or a life-sucking monster, the central feature of a city made famous as the honeymoon capital of the world and by a toxic dump (named Love Canal with only accidental irony). As Ariah and Dirk's children face their past and work toward a better future, Oates shows that redemption, if not inevitable, is at least one of life's options.

Oates once said of her 1969 novel, "them," the first book to bring her fame as a novelist, that she was attempting to distill "the essence of a place and a time. That magical conjunction of one's self and the larger, communal, mystical, and unknowable soul." These words also accurately describe "The Falls," surely one of Oates' best works, a "magical conjunction" of all her literary experimentation.


Charlotte Innes is a critic and essayist who is an occasional contributor to Book Review.

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