Monday 27 February 2012
Devouring Books: The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates
Right! Well, now that the self-congratulations are dispensed with, let's talk about The Falls shall we? Set in Niagara Falls (an area that I'm assuming Oates knows well, since quite a few of her books are set in Upstate New York) it explores not only the mystical and hypnotising powers of the falls, but also looks at one, not at all typical family living and growing up by them, just as their formation was ensured by them. And it's all dramatic, and there are murders and lawsuits and neuroses and children who all feel like they're inadequate, and less loved than their siblings. So, you know, all that usual life stuff and all.
Here's the thing with Oates. There is always a slight distance between the reader and the characters, so that, even as you feel like you know the characters pretty well, they remain universal enough so they could almost be anyone, at any time. Their fears, concerns, joys and successes are so real and so familiar that, in keeping slightly aloof from the characters, they could almost be members of our own families, or even ourselves. I think, though, that this way of writing characters has an impact on how the story reads, and it's either something you like or you don't. Love one Oates book, and you're pretty much going to love them all, but hate one, and you should probably avoid her. This isn't to say that all her stories are the same, far from it, in fact, but the style they are written in remains pretty constant, and it happens to be one that I really like.
So. A real closeness to the characters is almost impossible, but their emotions, and their thoughts? Those we can sympathise with. We can sympathise with Dirk Burnaby's (GREAT name, by the way!) moral dilemma between wanting to prosecute chemical factories for polluting areas and making a lot of people ill (literally all I could think of during that whole part was Erin Brockovich, which is a good thing to me- how you feel about it probably depends on how much you like Julia Roberts...) and wanting to stay friends with his friends who were involved with said chemical factories, and we can sympathise with Ariah's desire to not know anything, so that she also can't be hurt by anything. I mean, don't get me wrong, we can also criticise them for their decisions and believe that their moral dilemmas are really easy to decide on, and yet in our own lives, we can probably think of parallels and so, there's that sympathising again!
By far my favourite part of the book was the last part, which was all about Dirk and Ariah's three children. Partly, I think, because in knowing their origins, it's like we know everything there is about them, but also purely because they're all less insane than their parents (well, than Ariah. Dirk's ok). Through three random events in each of their lives, we get a pretty comprehensive idea of what they're like and who they are, and we get to know that hey, they're ok; and also that an overbearing mother and absent father don't have to mean that they're irrevocably damaged- in fact, they all manage to break free of the roles assigned to them by their mother, and forge out their own lives, even if that means breaking away from 'The Family' (Family= a big thing in this book. Although not in a mafia way. Probably.)
So. I'm glad I finally read this book, especially since I started it about 4 years ago and never picked it up again, and now I won't have to look at it on my bookshelf every day and idly wonder what it's about. It's not my absolute favourite of all the Joyce Carol Oates books I've read (that would be Blonde) but I liked it plenty.