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     Volume 4 Issue 19 | October 29, 2004 |

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Book Review

The "Suicide's Paradise"

By 1900, according to an epigraph in Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel, Niagara Falls had become known as "Suicide's Paradise". Set in the region of upstate New York where Oates grew up, The Falls opens in the 1950s with a Presbyterian reverend leaping to his death after the first night of his marriage. Yet, as the novel explores the ironies of an Eden despoiled not only by banal commodification, but by unchecked industrial expansion, the Suicide's Paradise becomes emblematic of a greater disaster: a country poisoning itself and its future. Based partly on facts about the local "Love Canal" pollution scandal, and those who fought to expose it in the 60s and 70s, The Falls seeks to evoke a mythological battle between the will to self-annihilation and the impulse to conserve life.

It is a family saga centred on Ariah Erskine, the bride turned widow of the repressed homosexual clergyman whose failed ambition was to reconcile evolution with Genesis. Ariah, a music teacher whose sense of being damned has a "fatal smugness", is soon betrothed to Dirk Burnaby, a lawyer gilded by wealth and good looks, with whom she has three children. Yet, just as the 1850s saw a boom in tourist development, the 1950s were of rampant industrial exploitation. By 1970 the region was to have the highest concentration of chemical factories in the US. Burnaby is drawn into championing a class action suit against the polluters by a "woman in black", whose three-year-old daughter died of leukaemia and whose son's schoolyard oozes black waste.

The Falls
Maya Jaggi

The attorney uncovers decades of hazardous dumping in the open ditch of "Love Canal" - some of it radioactive from military waste in the 40s - with poisoned land sold to the board of education "for a dollar". As his marriage falters, his campaign collides with powerful interests that fear a threat to the tourist appeal of the falls, resulting in his death in an "accident".

After an interval of 15 years, the story shifts to his grown-up children, Chandler, Royall and Juliet. They share a "wilful self-destructiveness" born of a sense of shame about a man their mother refuses to speak of. As they tell her, "you cheated us of grief". Each investigates their father's past. Another generation of lawyers, which succeeds in the late 70s where Burnaby failed, honours him as a pioneer. But his children must first turn away from the self-destructive temptation of revenge.

The treacherous falls are powerfully evoked. There are engaging vignettes, such as that of Burnaby's mother, permanently veiled after botched plastic surgery. But Royall's graveyard seduction by the woman in black reads like a plot device from the more vapid reaches of magical realism, while a corrupt cop's descent into syphilis-induced dementia has the force of limp wishful thinking.

Oates has said she veers between an embittered Swiftian irony about humankind, and idealism. Here, unselfishly decent men contest Ariah's pessimism and inward-looking isolationism ("I have to protect my own children. They come first, and - nothing comes second!"). Yet Oates fails to shed much light on Burnaby beyond the media clichés spouted at his belated memorial, of his being a "crusading idealist", a hero "tragically ahead of his time". The novel's strained memorialising creates a hectoring tone, as in the intrusive authorial voice behind Ariah's aside: "Vindication, validation, redemption, and so forth. Sixteen years too late."

Oates's finest work has arguably been in the short story, and there are compelling shorter fictions embedded in this tome. But the transitions are uneasy, as between Ariah's cursed honeymoon and the Hollywood conventions of the small man (or woman) battling with big business against the odds: the gothic meets Erin Brockovich. Propelled by a succession of taut but tenuously linked mysteries and a flair for the minutiae of character, The Falls is often a good read but scarcely a great novel.

This review was first published in The Guardian


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