Niagara both epitomizes the French New Novel of the 1950’s and 1960’s and bewilders readers expecting traditional plot and character development. It is a work in which very little happens in the usual sense of novelistic action; structure towers over substance and the medium itself is one of the principal messages. Simply put, over the course of a year, groups of representative and interchangeable characters visit Niagara Falls, take the usual tours (on the Maid of the Mist, for example), speak to one another or to themselves, observe the local attractions, and leave. The human action in the novel follows predictably from one chapter (which spans a month’s time) to another and is as constant as the flow of the falls.
On another level, the novel’s action takes place in the mind of the individual reader, who must participate in the work by making judgments, listening, adjusting the volume of what is heard, and remembering the words of an announcer, a reader, and the other characters, as well as the sounds of the falls and the tourists. Each reader must produce his or her own version of a radio broadcast, complete with sound effects: This production, the act of the mind producing this broadcast, is the primary action of this experimental “open” novel. One object of this action is stichomythia, as one seeks “to hear how, within this liquid monument, a change in lighting will cause new forms and aspects to appear.”
The physical actions of the groups of characters form the important and necessary basis of the broadcast. Actions such as touring and tending the flower gardens mark a contrast between motives for action (tourism and work), between socioeconomic classes, races, and classes within the races. The description of the descent down the rocks in the elevator (June) provides an example of temporary unity and solidarity, since all who go...
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