After 37 novels and 23 short story collections, what more is there to say? And that’s just it with Joyce Carol Oates: there’s more, and it’s just as good, if not better, than her other works. I recently read The Falls and am in awe all over again, like I have been dozens of times before after reading her work.
Oates describes herself as “drawn to failure” and in certain respects I can see what she means. How else can you write so many books that actually depict the difficult, deeply flawed nature of humans? You would almost need to be addicted to failure to keep examining and describing and contemplating humanity’s failures the way Oates does.
Indeed, what is most compelling about Oates, and what some readers find unbearably frustrating, is her relentless ability to depict the ambiguity of life — the way people are so adorable and yet so annoying, so gifted and yet so flawed, so loving and yet so hurtful.
As much as Oates is drawn to failure, however, she also has a keen eye for what makes life possible — for what makes people adapt and find their way out of the wilderness of their own past. In The Falls, Ariah Burnaby, widow and single mother with three children, finally manages to honor the life of her husband, even after forcing him out of her mind and refusing to ackowledge him to her children as they grew up. Pride and survivalism caused her to make enormous mistakes (I saw one reviewer calling it “emotional abuse” the way she would not allow the memory of her husband, their father, to be part of their lives) but her children did not give up loving her, and she did not give up loving them, and in the end her pride succumbed.
Oates also has an unparalleled ability to incorporate pivotal social and political events into her novels. The Falls features the events leading up to the now famous Love Canal lawsuits in which families harmed by toxic dumping were finally able to win litigation against the chemical corporations responsible. Oates depicts accurately the brutal way politicians, lawyers, judges, and wealthy corporate bigwigs conspire to make it difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to seek protection or remediation from the law.
Below is a quote from Oates which, as a writer of fiction, I find tremendously liberating. It is from the profile of Oates in the back of The Falls:
On the wall above Joyce Carol Oates’s desk is a 1957 quote from the film director Alfred Hitchcock. It says: “It’s only a movie, let’s not go too deeply into these things.” These simple words of advice were given to Kim Novak when she was feeling agitated and despondent on the set of Vertigo. “I thought it was good advice,” says Joyce Carol Oates. “Writers can get too intense and too emotionally involved with their work. Sometimes I tend to get a little anxious and nervous about my writing, and I can make myself unhappy, so I look up at that quote and think, it’s only a book, don’t worry, it’s not your life.”