Joyce Carol Oates had a grand idea for a novel and here, in novel form with The Falls, she presents what feels like a detailed outline — 479 dense pages, but something still closer to summary than immersion. The close-knit family psycho-drama that the author intends, a story of the hidden resentments all families carry, simply loses its purpose as its scope is blown out of proportion to match the massive scenery of Niagara Falls.
Set in 1950, a young newlywed Presbyterian reverend, Gilbert Erskine, seeks release from a marriage he knows isn’t sincere through the mesmerizing power of the Falls. “Your brain,” Oates writes, “ that one-of-a-kind repository of you, will be pounded into its chemical compounds: brain cells, molecules, atoms. Every shadow and echo of every memory erased.”
So he tosses his guilt and his life into the Falls, leaving his wife of one day, lanky and pale Ariah Littrell, a twenty-nine year old permanently blushing piano teacher, as a reluctant local legend: “The Widow-Bride of the Falls.” Though both bright and inward, awkward but talented, Ariah and Gilbert never share an “I love you” between them, just an engagement arranged by their parents that seems to fulfill what their lives otherwise lack. Ariah is left feeling as though her day-long marriage was a divine joke played on her lonely life — “no one can help me. I believe I am — damned.”
The disastrous honeymoon wins the hushed sympathy of the luxury hotel she’s staying in. Lacking any better way to handle the public relations fiasco, the hotel’s proprietor gives her the company of Dirk Burnaby, a handsome, hulking attorney and chamber of commerce playboy known for his persuasive charisma. Though they share not a single full conversation during the dazed search for Ariah’s missing husband (his body eventually turns up bloated and meat-textured after its week under water), Dirk — a previously entrenched bachelor — inexplicably falls so deeply in love with the widow-bride that they marry within weeks of Ariah’s first marriage.
The Burnaby family thus forms — three children, one of which we always suspect is from the first husband’s frantic “spiteful” seed — around which Ariah clings with increasing desperation, convinced she’s destined to be abandoned again and again and determined to prove she doesn’t need anyone outside of her family.
The elements of an affecting work of fiction seem present and, before it wears you down from an overabundance of background histories, the book does sporadically grab you. The most endearing and successful passages come early, such as those describing the anxious suspension Ariah experiences waking up in the hotel unsure where her new husband has gone. For a lost moment, she thinks he may be in bed beside her and she panics over this entirely new intimacy she now shares with a spouse:
A virgin, 29 years old. Inexperienced with men as with another species of being. As she lay wracked with pain she didn’t dare even to reach out in the enormous bed for fear of touching him. She wouldn’t have wanted him to misinterpret her touch.
But we lose empathy for Ariah’s state around the same time we lose the story itself. As Ariah’s character shuts down on the outside world — as she develops a defensive, crotchety love for her family with Dirk — the novel undergoes a shift from the personal to the nearly historical, sweeping over decades, offering so many worn turns of plot, and so many mazes of unnecessary narration, that drama turns to melodrama and any engagement turns to tedium.
Midway through, the story does an about-face and turns into an environmental thriller when Dirk takes on the case of a family living over a toxic waste dump. The sympathetic tale of a gangly deserted bride is now superseded by stock television drama: greedy corporations, bribed judges, a late-night murder — even rumored mob ties. This abrupt change of tempo provides a momentum, but, given the nature of the book until this point, the change seems inserted merely to meet an artificial requirement of “plot” and “suspense.”
What bogs the book down most, though, is the author’s distanced narration — past-tense summaries that repeatedly gloss and re-gloss childhoods, decades, births, deaths rather than let dialogue or presently occurring events unfold in their natural immediacy. The prose feels as if the author grew impatient with her own story and started to leave sketches and outright explanations in the place of a more consuming form of writing. (“They were married, and each became the other’s best friend.” “They were married, and pregnant. They celebrated.” Or, right to the point: “Years passed.”) As a result, there’s little discovery to be experienced by the reader in The Falls because every aspect has already been made abundantly clear by the smothering commentary.
Taken in its parts, The Falls contains a memorable story, but one you could walk away from at any moment and from any page. The book has all the intention of presenting an intimate understanding of a family’s secret dynamics, but it comes in the wrong presentation, the wrong expression to do so with any resonance.