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Themes and Threads: "The Falls" by Joyce Carol Oates

— Joyce Carol Oates' enigmatic new novel, The Falls, is part historical thriller, part dysfunctional family portrait. Set in the 1950s, near Oates' own hometown in Niagara Falls, our heroine Ariah Littrell is widowed on her disastrous wedding night when her new husband, (a homosexual minister) commits suicide by throwing himself into Niagara Falls. After the harrowing and detailed description of the suicide, the almighty power of the falls captivates and terrifies its audience. Clearly the power of the falls are paramount to the tension of the book. Consider these introductory epigraphs:

The cruel beauty of The Falls
That calls to you-

-M.L. Trau, "The Ballad of the Niagara," 1931

"The Falls at Niagara, comprising the American, the Bridal Veil and the enormous Horseshoe falls, exert upon a proportion of the human population, perhaps as many as forty percent (of adults), an uncanny effect called the hydracropsychic. This morbid condition has been known to render even the will of the active, robust man in the prime of life temporarily invalid, as if under the spell of a malevolent hypnotist. Such a one, drawn to the turbulent rapids above The Falls, fay stand for long minutes staring as if paralyzed. Speak to him in the most forcible tone, he will not hear you. Touch him, or attempt to restrain him, he may throw off your hand angrily. The eyes of the enthralled victim are fixed and dilated. There may be a mysterious biological attraction to the thunderous force of nature represented by The Falls, romantically misinterpreted as 'magnificent'-'grand'-'Godly'-and so the unfortunate victim throws himself to his doom if he is not prevented.

"We may speculate: Under the spell of The Falls the hapless individual both ceases to exist and yet wills to become immortal. A new birth, not unlike the Christian promise of the Resurrection of the Body, may be the cruelest hope. Silently the victim vows to The Falls-'Yes, you have killed thousands of men and women but you can't kill me. Because I am me.'"

-Dr. Moses Blaine, A Niagara Falls Physician's Log, 1879-1905

"By 1900 Niagara Falls had come to be known, to the dismay of local citizens and promoters of the prosperous tourist trade, as 'Suicide's Paradise.'"

-A Brief History of Niagara Falls, 1969

Ariah is thunderstruck by her husband's suicide - and thinks it was because of their first more-than-awkward night as man and wife. She feels responsible, cursed, and so keeps a vigil for her husband until his body is found. While she stands day after day, pale, frail, speechless by the river's edge, a wealthy and handsome lawyer, Dirk Burnaby, falls in love with her.

What's hidden becomes important in the book – what lies beneath, the desires that dwell underneath the surface.

He eventually proposes and moves Ariah to Niagara Falls, where she lives in painfully deep love with him. Happy ending? Not hardly. We can count on Oates to murk up the water quickly. Ariah's love shifts to something darker as she becomes obsessed with the idea of losing Dirk, and when her children come along, her love for them is so fierce, so charged, it's absolutely terrifying.

Ariah's erratic behavior becomes more than the family can bear, especially after Dirk takes on the intriguing and beguiling Nina Olshaker and the Love Canal case. Nina wants Dirk to alert the city's forefathers to the dangerous toxic dump her neighborhood has become. The case begins to unravel Dirk's marriage, his practice and his standing in the community. Disaster strikes again when his involvement in the case results in his murder. (Score number two for the Falls)

What's hidden becomes important in the book - what lies beneath, the desires that dwell underneath the surface. Water historically has been a metaphor for the subconscious and illuminates the true desires of mankind. On the surface, Ariah's first husband was a heterosexual minister. Underneath, he was a suicidal homosexual. On the surface, Ariah is a loving doting wife and mother. Underneath, she is obsessive and compulsive. The water hides the truth about the Love Canal, hides Dirk's body, and hides the details of his murder.

These hidden currents work well to draw the reader in - makes us complicit with the characters, where we know more than they do - we have the whole picture why they stumble around with shards of it. Besides using the hidden on a broad base, Oates hides detail in the specifics, in "le mot juste" (the perfect word).. Ariah's last name for example, Littrell, is suspiciously close to the word "Littoral" (meaning close to the water), a perfect name for the sorrowful widow bride of Niagara Falls.

"All drama is about family," one character muses, and clearly Oates has put to good use her knowledge of the complicated, passionate, confusing currents of interpersonal dynamics. And while she introduces us to this wonderfully strange family, she also adeptly conveys the intriguing details of the Love Canal case, the first class action case in America.

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