Joyce Carol Oates


"The Falls"

(Reviewed by Carisa Richner JAN 16, 2005)

Yet The Falls exerted its malevolent spell, that never weakened…Most Niagara natives kept their distance from The Falls, so they were immune. But if you drifted too near, even out of intellectual curiosity, you were in danger; beginning to think thoughts unnatural to your personality as if the thunderous waters were thinking for you, depriving you of your will.”

In the newest novel by one of America’s most prolific writers, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of Ariah Littrell who becomes the “Widow-Bride of the Falls” when her husband, Reverend Gilbert Erskine, throws himself into Niagara Falls on the morning after their wedding. The opening chapters are fascinating as the reader hears two perspectives of the disastrous wedding night, Gilbert’s thought process leading up to his suicide, and Ariah’s thoughts as the police search for the body. The novel starts with a mythic feel to the characters, including Niagara Falls itself. Oates takes pains to characterize the water as irresistible to some people, people who are driven by a power they don’t understand to jump in and lose themselves. Ariah waits a week for “The Falls” to give up the body, accompanied by Dick Burnaby, a lawyer friend of the hotel owner where the fateful couple spent their wedding night. Surprisingly, after the body is found and Ariah goes home, Dick finds that he’s fallen in love with her, searches her out, and proposes. She accepts, to the consternation of her parents. They marry and she immediately gets pregnant. Events have happened so fast that Ariah is never completely convinced that Dick is the father of her son.

As their family gets larger with the birth of another son and a daughter, Ariah struggles with depression and a premonition that Dick will abandon her as her first husband did. At this point, the novel rather disconcertingly changes tone. While the first chapters are very broadly painted, not bound to a specific time, the middle portion is firmly grounded in America circa 1961. Dick accepts the first case involving Love Canal, the infamous environmental disaster in which hazardous waste was dumped into a trench, covered with soil, then sold to the Niagara Falls Board of Education. Schools and homes were constructed over the waste. Dick is approached by a homeowner who shows him black sludge leaking from her basement wall. Her daughter has died of leukemia and the rest of her family has bizarre health problems stemming from, she believes, the underground poison. As Dick becomes more and more passionate about the case, discovering that his friends and colleagues are directly responsible for the disaster and are actively covering it up, Ariah becomes more and more unbalanced, convinced that Dick is having an affair. Unfortunately, the case is dismissed before it even gets to trial, and Dick is murdered in what looks like a car accident. Ariah’s premonition that Dick would leave her becomes true, and she is left to raise three children on her own.

Interestingly, the Love Canal case functions in the same way for Dick as Niagara Falls functions for Gilbert: both men cannot resist the lure and are compelled to jump in. Once Dick knows the facts of the case, he cannot help but win justice for his client and the other people in her neighborhood who have been harmed. He knows his zeal is hurting his marriage, his reputation, his friendships, and indeed, his very life, but he can’t help it; he is driven to see this to the end. Similarly, Gilbert is driven to do what he feels he must do. However, his drive is a reaction to his physical and emotional revulsion of Ariah and from his parent and congregation’s expectations.

After Dick’s death, the children are left to deal with the emotional fallout. Ariah, rather inexplicably, never tells them anything about their father or his death, even refusing to speak about him. As history repeats itself, the children seem to experience the same tests that their parents did, but this time, chose different courses. Chandler, the oldest, is in love with a woman, and is a father figure to her baby, but not the actual father, mirroring his own questionable parentage. He becomes a teacher and a crisis interventionalist, who risks his life to save a woman held hostage. Royall, the second son, is pressured to marry in the same way that Ariah was, but calls off the wedding at the last moment. Juliet, the youngest, is plagued by voices that tell her to jump into Niagara Falls, but is saved at the last moment by Bud, the son of the police officer who helped kill Dick.

This novel is an interesting plot driven novel, but one that would benefit with some editing. Many portions of the novel, especially toward the end, seem unnecessarily drawn out. However, fans of Joyce Carol Oates should not miss reading The Falls.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 158 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Falls at HarperCollins.com

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"I'll Take You There"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 30, 2002)

Our nameless narrator tells us about three separate events that occurred in her life beginning when she was a nineteen-year-old girl attending college in upstate New York during the early 1960s. As a scholarship student, she is smarter than most (she will eventually graduate as valedictorian), but lacks social skills, emotional maturity and financial security of most students. But these are things she is only vaguely aware of as she obsessively attempts to experience life the way she thinks it should be, yet her experience always come up short. We can assume that these three events shaped her later life, but of that, all we know is that she became a writer. And though she narrates as an more mature adult, she is able to recount much of the details of that inexplicable period in her life with an immediacy that helps us see things her way. Adding credibility to her story, however, at times she can only approximate what must have happened.

Read excerptThe short and sweet of the novel is this: In a somewhat confounding move, she joins a sorority only to find out how unlike she is to all these women, who are the very embodiment of the American beauty; she has her first intimate relationship with an African American philosophy student named Verner Matheius who is ten years her senior, yet he refuses to participate in the civil rights movement; then, two years later she drives her Volkswagen bug from Vermont to Colorado to see her dying father (whom she believed was already dead) but when she gets there, she is not allowed to look at him.

None of these events begins or ends the way one would expect because our narrator is not a typical girl having received very little emotional guidance growing up. Her distinct disadvantage began with having her mother die when she was only eighteen-months old. Her father, three brothers and paternal grandparents blame her for her mother's death. Her childhood is filled with made up memories of her mother and seeking acceptance from her alcoholic father, who doesn't ever call her anything but "You" and is often startled that she exists at all.

Thus having grown up in a house with everything except a mother or sisters, she turns to a sorority house as a means to fulfill these missing relationships, which, of course, aggravates this aloneness, more than cures it. It also continues the pattern for how our narrator sees herself in the world. In the opening paragraphs she entices us to read on with these words: "They would claim that I destroyed Mrs. Thayer... Yet others would claim that Mrs. Thayer destroyed me." Mrs. Thayer is the British-born sorority housemother, another person who refuses to know her real name, instead calling her "Mary Alice;" and, she is yet another person of whom our narrator seeks unrequited acceptance. And in a pattern that began with her mother, it is another person she believes that she destroyed so that she herself could live. It dawned on me, how pivotal this statement is because if you substitute Mrs. Thayer with the name Verner Matheius or with her father's name, or even her mother's, this sentence always works. This is the parallel that exists for each of the separate incidents, a sense that the narrator's life only exists at the expense of destroying others. A lesson embedded in her from early childhood, though some might argue that it is she who was destroyed by the others.

Surprisingly, this novel is not as depressing or mundane as one might think given the subject matter. Truly this is one naive narrator when it comes to the way of the world and people, and it is probably because of this that she holds our interest. That and she skillfully feeds us an as-it-happens narration of her activities. Her experiences in the sorority, her pursuit of Verner Matheius, and her descriptions of her father's "friend" and nurse, all have a mordant humor that keeps the story flowing and light even when aspects of it turn dark. Through our narrator, Joyce Carol Oates brings out the madness and strengths of an intellectual female at a time when women still went to college expressly to hook a good husband. It is no wonder that our narrator turns to studying philosophy to try to understand the meaning of life, what role models did she really have? Though even she had to admit as the more mature narrator, "to study the human mind up close, to probe into one's own mind, one's own motives, is to be baffled utterly."

You'll be hard-pressed to find anything written about this author that doesn't emphasize how prolific she is. Just take a look at her bibliography and there's no dispute it. Over the years, she has experimented with a number of genres and styles, most always earning praise. In describing her work as prolific, it's hard to get across that the significance that this is in terms of quality, not just quantity. Joyce Carol Oates is a good old-fashioned kind of masterfully talented writer, the kind that likes to really build a three dimensional character, possibly not always one you can or want to relate to. The kind that takes most writers years to complete. While reading this novel, I had the bubbling-up overwhelming feeling that you get when experiencing the real thing, the work of a well-founded writer, something that's hard to put your finger on but you know that's it not found in all books. I know when I read Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, I had been so amazed with it that I couldn't pass my copy on to enough people. This latest novel has many of the same elements, so it is no wonder that I enjoyed it.

Reading this novel made me sad to see how shallow some of the writers seem that are grabbing the market today. How many writers would have approached this storyline with sassy, self-deprecating humor, filling the novel with antics rather than the subtle turn of the word? Reading one or two novels written in that style is all right, even fun, but after that it's more annoying than amusing. What those novels miss is getting inside the skin and head of the character, letting us feel what it must be like to grow up motherless, to have people not like us, to be so intellectually superior yet naively unaware of the most obvious social situations. In some small way though she is so different from us, she has a way of reminding us about being that age, that awkward. She makes us feel the bruises while injecting us with an inexplicable hope that the rest of her life will be better. Fortunately there are still many new writers taking the time to write these kind of novels. Many are featured at this site. It's just amazing to me that I've left this author off the site for so long.

All of us avid readers go through periods where no book seems to be the right book. It's a desperate feeling when you think you've lost the knack for reading. I wouldn't be aware of it happening to others if I didn't see the occasional message pop up on online reading groups, the urgent plea for a jump-start suggestion. Let me offer this book for such a cure. Of course, I don't mean to say that you should wait until you are desperate before reading this or any of her work. To play on the title, I'm hoping you'll find that she can take you there.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from I'll Take You There at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

Joyce Carol OatesJoyce Carol Oates was born in 1938 and grew up in upstate New York. While a scholarship student at Syracuse University, she won the coveted Mademoiselle fiction contest. She graduated as valedictorian, then earned an M.A. at the University of Wisconsin. In 1968, she began teaching at the University of Windsor. In 1974, her and husband founded Ontario Review. In 1978, she moved to New Jersey to teach creative writing at Princeton University, where she is now the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities.

A prolific writer, having written some 70 books, Joyce Carol Oates has produced some of the most controversial, and lasting, fiction of our time. Her novel, them, set in racially volatile 1960s Detroit, won the 1970 National Book Award. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart focused on an interracial teenage romance. Black Water, a narrative based on the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and her national bestseller Blonde, an epic work on American icon Marilyn Monroe, became a National Book Award Finalist. Although Joyce Carol Oates has called herself, "a serious writer, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists," her novels have enthralled a wide audience. After being picked for an Oprah Book at the start of 2001, We Were the Mulvaneys earned the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, the first time any of her books reached the spot, though most have been critically acclaimed. Joyce Carol Oates has been twice-nominated for the Noble Prize in literature.

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