Joyce Carol Oates at Niagara Falls

The Falls

By Joyce Carol Oates

If nothing else, Joyce Carol Oates has proven herself a masterful weaver of words and spinner of yarns that often skirt along the edge of credibility. Add to this that she is not afraid of creating off-putting characters in whom she usually manages to find some good inside the shell of repulsion, which sums up her central character in The Falls, wildly neurotic Ariah.

Of course, as Oates elucidates, the poor woman has her reasons, what with being steeped in an oppressive religious childhood, self-deprecating by nature, seemingly married off to a reticent minister (an act mysterious to Ariah) who leaves her with the impression he finds her disgusting, and traumatized on the first day of their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, when consumed by inner conflicts contradictory to his religious beliefs, he leaps into the Falls to his death. Of what worth am I as a woman and a human being when I evoke responses like this? you might hear her mulling. Yet, Oates finds hope even lurking in Ariah that her life has meaning, at least to her ultimately ambitious and soon to be successful children, Chandler, Royall, and Juliet, and to readers who care to give the poor woman their empathy and understanding.

This is a big, sprawling family saga novel, often dark, and wrought, but ever fascinating with psychology, with historical tidbits, and scenes that keep readers racing ahead, like the channels of the Niagara, despite its length.

The story opens in 1950 with Ariah and her new husband, minister Gilbert Erskine, on their honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Both are tormented souls, but more so Gilbert, who can’t reconcile with his religious beliefs with his animal desires, which go beyond congress with Ariah, deep into the core of his sexual nature. His solution is to jump off the Falls and become yet another who chose its thundering drop as their exit door from life.

Left in turmoil by both a less than stellar honeymoon night and the disappearance of her new husband, Ariah begins to shutdown emotionally, a psychological state that becomes the hallmark of her life. She has a brief reprise when she meets the rich, charming, and flamboyant Dirk Burnaby. They engage in an impulsive love affair that leads in short order to their marriage. During the lead up to this, Ariah discovers she is pregnant and puzzles over the father: Gilbert or Dirk? She keeps her fears secret from Dirk but lets her quandary accidentally slip to one of his sisters her doubts.

Their marriage produces three children and as much as she can Ariah begins to open up. Then Dirk becomes involved in a case brought to him by a married woman living in what today we know as the Love Canal. At first resistant to taking the case, as Dirk’s forte is litigation and consultative law, at which he is a master, he does. Nina Olshaker, who brings the case to him, holds an allure for him that he cannot resist. Thus he plunges headlong into a case that pits him squarely against the Niagara Falls ruling class, of which he and his family are members, sending Ariah into an emotional tailspin that dissolves their marriage. Literary, the case kills Dirk.

Ariah had always harbored the fear, expressing it regularly to Dirk, that he would desert her. When he vanishes, she condemns him to the children, who grow up both disliking him, suffering opprobrium from classmates because of his memory, and wondering who he really was. It’s not until they reach adulthood that, through their efforts, the truth about Dirk is revealed to them and the community.

This barebones outline should give you a good idea of the intricacies of the novel and hint at its divergence into melodrama and darkness. But hold on: there are glimpses of light at the end, like the rapidly appearing and disappearing rainbows in the Falls.

In the Oates’ oeuvre, it may not be her best effort. However, it surpasses much of what authors of melodramatic and gothic tales churn out and the writing, though a bit purple in spots, is of the highest order. Though marred by a pretty big loose end, certainly Oates fans will enjoy it, along with those who like family sagas, melodrama, gothic tales, and novels where landscape assumes the role of a character. w/c

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