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the falls

I’ve been avoiding writing this review. Notes have been on paper for more than two weeks and I kept putting it off. I’m starting to ask myself why. My first answer is that I both like and dislike The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates. I also respect Oates as a writer, thinker, and critic; she is among the most prolific U.S. writers living. I find myself strangely hesitant before her intellect, as though I think I don’t understand what she’s trying to do and so can’t respond appropriately.

I was an Oates novel-virgin—reviews, poems, other writing, but never a novel. My friend, Diane, recommended the book; I saw it as a sign it was time to expose myself.

It is a little surprising in this decade to find a novel written in chronological order. So many are written in snatches of interweaved impressions; when done well, past, present, and future combine for a seamless intertexuality that makes temporality feel obsolete Instead, there is only a story, told in the way that our minds make sense of it (my prime exemplar would be Morrison’s Beloved). Oates decided, perhaps, not to bow to fashion. There are no flashbacks or hidden mysteries in the past that slowly reveal themselves. Here all the dark secrets are known.

This is the story of a woman, Ariah, who loses her husbands (two) to the literal and metaphorical power of Niagra Falls. The first one jumps into the swirling rapids above the falls the morning after their first night together. The second is married to her long enough to produce three children. Both men disappear in the water—one’s body is found a week later; the other never reappears. If this seems a bit overwrought . . . well, maybe you’re right. Certainly the opening chapters are annoying—Ariah and her new husband are ludicrously naïve, ridiculously self-absorbed. Surely everyone in 1950 wasn’t so stupid.

Still, Oates is a keen observer of humans and their relationships. She is at her sharpest when writing about parents and their children, commenting with a wet resignation on the grinding, monotonous power of generational differences. As Ariah looks on, her young son deals with his trying-too-hard grandfather: “Sometimes he pushed frantically away from Grandpa. In her father’s face at such times Ariah saw a look of genuine loss. The power of the thoughtless child, to reject. To outlive.”

Oates also makes a point of the constricted gender roles of the 1950s in explicit contrast to the war years before and the women’s liberation to come. At the same time, I have the sense she knows that despite the changes, improvements for women have not come as far as some would have us believe—though I can’t point to any one place or phrase that tips me off.

Overall, there’s a feeling that despite our best efforts at “progress”—and she would certainly use quotes around the word—things mostly stay the same. Yeah, we’re perhaps a little more aware of some social, political, and environmental justice (yes, Love Canal is important in the book) issues. But ultimately not much is changing and we had better get our meaning and our joy from the friends and family around us. In this way, Oates shares the same message as Orwell in Animal Farm, but with a different conclusion. For Orwell, the lack of change is a warning against anyone who claims to have a solution, with no answer for making things better. For Oates, the inevitability of suffering, death, and the obscurity of the dust and vapor to which we return has an answer in the meaning we make together, the memories we make, the rituals we observe, the relationships we maintain.

Oates vividly portrays the ways we reach for dignity and self-respect in the midst of our ordinary, mundane, tawdry lives. Also the ways we miss and how we usually, but not always, live through that, as well.

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