You can't help pitying the people who show up in the novels of Joyce Carol Oates. From the first page, you sense that they're going to be known to death, literally splayed by her insight. And before you realize it, she's done the same thing to us. For 40 years, she's coyly enticed us with the gothic details of ordinary life and then - when it's too late - pinned us on the sharp point of her wisdom.
I read "The Falls," her latest novel, in what seemed like one held breath. Set around Niagara, the story reflects all the romance, mystery, and terror of that spectacular waterfall. It's a great confluence of tones - grotesque and domestic, tragic and comic. The currents of various styles and points of view blend together in a way that can't possibly work, but does.
How else to begin at Niagara Falls but with a honeymoon - and a suicide? Ariah Littrell's desperation to be married had reached a fever pitch, which is pretty much the mental condition she maintains for the rest of her life. Though she's terrified of sex and disgusted by her own body, at 29 "she would have gladly traded her soul for an engagement ring," Oates writes. The daughter of a prominent minister, she's thrilled to be marrying another minister, even if she doesn't really love him, even if she knows he can't love her, "an old maid."
The morning after their first night together - an evening of consummate humiliation - her new husband answers the call of the roaring water outside their bridal suite and throws himself over. It's a classic Oates moment - hypnotically awful, the kind of slow-motion disaster you can't take your eyes off.
Ariah, long determined to be the perfect wife, immediately recasts herself as "The Widow Bride of the Falls," maintaining a seven-day vigil while police search for her new husband's body.
The hotel manager, desperate to downplay this common "accident" as gracefully as possible, appeals for help to a friend, a charming, well-connected lawyer named Dirk Burnaby. But poor Dirk is drawn to Ariah the way people are drawn to the water, and he falls head over heels for this anxious, brittle woman.
The heart of the novel is the story of their marriage and the family they build together through the 1950s and early '60s. Dirk loves his wife and their three children, his law firm grows more prosperous, and the Burnabys enjoy an idyllic suburban existence. Except that Ariah wields a kind of psychological brutality, cutting away anything unpleasant, anything that troubles her, such as memories of her first husband, news of the world, the complexity of her new husband's legal work, neighbors' friendly invitations, even telephone calls. It's all banished in a flurry of anxious protests and ferocious pleading. She alternately shrieks and cajoles, stares down anyone who crosses her, or runs from the room with hands over her ears.
Ariah excites the same perverse fascination as Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie." In fact, she's a kind of middle-class companion to Tennessee Williams's classic mother-monster, though she's trapped in a mythical present instead of a mythical past. She draws her children around her even as she repels them, constantly calling attention to her anxieties with ceaseless, ludicrous denials that anything is wrong.
Dirk, meanwhile, finds himself compelled to represent a young woman who claims that her neighborhood, along an area known as Love Canal, has been poisoned by chemical waste. There's little precedent for environmental liability, and Dirk knows that a conspiracy of business and political forces will make justice almost impossible to attain, but he pursues the case with a dogged idealism that threatens his business, his family, and his own life.
"The Falls" is written in a strange, fluid cycle of voices, a blending of these characters' thoughts and the author's searing, ironic judgment. Sometimes, characters speak for themselves, or the three Burnaby children speak in a kind of composite voice. Some sections employ the repetitions of a chorus. Others sound like newspaper accounts. One odd chapter reads like an eroticized ghost story.
Oates handles all this with winning confidence, moving through intimate details just as deftly as she re-creates a crucial period in environmental law. Most of the mysteries here are tied up, but others are lost in the mist. When she tells the story of Dirk's grandfather, an acrobat who once walked across the Falls on a wire, I couldn't help thinking of the daredevil feat she braves herself with this novel.
Ultimately, corporate thugs and their crooked judges can't keep chemicals from oozing out of the ground, any more than Ariah can keep the past from seeping into her children's lives. The desperate struggle to hide and the desperate struggle to uncover collide in these pages with gripping effect.
Surprisingly, though it's full of creepy, ominous energy, by the end this is a novel of forgiveness, of learning to accept what's oddest and cruelest about those we love. It's a scary, perceptive portrayal of family life, particularly the burdens parents force on their children and the way love can make those burdens, if not light, then at least bearable.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.