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 must strip off the clothing they have worn, don orange rubber suits, and descend together, all looking alike. Yet this action is also an isolating event: No one can be heard above the roar of the cataract, and each is encased not only in rubber but also in solitude. This isolation within communion is the burden of much of the novel’s action, an isolation that is reinforced by the principal action of producing the broadcast alone and in the silence of reading, while hearing and processing the words and sounds communicated by the printed page.
Motivating, complementing, and sometimes thwarting human action is the action of the natural world, both the cycle of nature and the human life cycle. The novel begins in April, the sweet season when folk long to go on pilgrimages in Chaucerian terms and also the cruelest month in Eliotic terms, which mixes memory with desire in yet another contemporary wasteland. As the year progresses and festivals pass, the weather and climate change from the warmth and fertility of spring to the heat and torpor of summer, then to the melancholy of autumn, and finally, to desolation of winter, which brings the novel into March. This change of seasons finds its parallel in the appearance of new types of characters: the widows and widowers; the solitary young men; the lonely young women; the seducers and their easy prey; and, in a single appearance in the Coda (March), the homesick Frenchman who has, like the year and the other characters, reached bottom.
As in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), each of the characters is locked within the prison of himself. The key to unlocking the prisons of Eliot’s poem lies in what the thunder said. In Niagara, the key is also the word—in this case, the cascade of words drawn from Chateaubriand that constitutes the human action which complements and competes with the natural action of the falls, making sense of experience, reordering it, capturing it, organizing it, and involving the reader in a participatory action of communication.
What the falls said and what Chateaubriand said both open the action of the novel and conclude it. While Chateaubriand’s opening remarks about the falls are from a historical, political, and moral essay on ancient and modern revolutions, his concluding remarks describing the same scene are drawn from his Romantic novel Atala (1801; English translation, 1802), which has as its subtitle “The Love of Two Strangers in the Wilderness.” In the midst of desolation, then, the action concludes in a subtly positive way with words—Chateaubriand’s, Butor’s, and the reader’s—surviving the author’s orchestrated failure of communication and communicating anew in the action of the mind reflecting upon experience and communicating it.