T.C. Boyle — The Women

(Note: I posted along interview with Boyle about his new novel here.)

T.C. Boyle’s The Women begins towards the end, chronologically speaking, and yet it ends with a different kind of end in the form of a fire, which reminds one of the transience of all artistic endeavors. The novel’s structure is appropriate for such a wittily recursive work, in which diva-esque architect Frank Lloyd Wright is examined chiefly through the perspectives of the various women who attracted him (and vice-versa). Those women represent an evolution of his own being, but they never just function symbolically; even the throwaway characters have fabulously apt descriptions attached to them, as when the vindictive Miriam’s attorney is described as having “a low, considered voice, deeply intimate, as if he’d been born to collusion.”

The Women is “written” by the imaginary Wright apprentice Tadashi Sato, and the sophisticated but clear narrative structure could have long academic papers written about it. Tadashi’s his grandson, however, is Irish and has “translated” the book, meaning that Tadashi’s frequent footnotes sometimes deal with the translated aspects of the story, giving at least four levels of frame: from Wright to his wives and lovers to Tadashi to O’Flaherty-San. One need not notice these narrative games to enjoy the novel and its presentation of numerous reactions to the great and greatly narcissistic man at its core. Even calling him a narcissist might be unfair: he’s more a man obsessed by his art, and in that respect virtually everything else comes second or lower. Consequently, what seems like narcissism might simply be drive.

We see Tadashi’s influence in moments like this:

Of course, all this happened a very long time ago and I’m aware that it is peripheral to the task at hand, which is to give as full a portrait of Wrieto-san as I can, and I don’t wish to dwell on the negative, not at all. Suffice to say that I stayed on at Taliesin, grudgingly at first (and perhaps I should have defied Wrieto-San and Daisy’s father and all the rest of the world…).

That, anyway, is the line of reasoning that excuses his sometimes ill behaviors. A less forgiving reader might see him as taking “from the rich and [giving] to himself and he didn’t give a damn about anybody so long as he got what he wanted,” as Miriam thinks in one of her bitter stages. The same could apply to her, since she’s constantly belittling those she considers inferior—which is virtually everything. Miriam thinks of herself as “high, higher than any of them,” with little reason that’s apparent to us. Still, her charges are not utterly baseless despite her grandiose posturing, and the alternate view of Wright sees him using his abilities as a cloak against charges of making and breaking promises with impunity and discarding people like excess building material.

Building metaphors occur throughout The Women and make for an obvious commentary on the artistic process more generally, but Boyle is too canny a writer to make Wright’s “process,” if he has one, explicit. The New Yorker chastised him for this, saying “Unfortunately, the novel avoids any sustained consideration of Wright’s relationship to his art—a passion arguably more important in forming his genius than any of the women in his life were.” But I think that’s part of the novel’s point: an artist’s relationship to his art can’t really be explained or depicted. We can only see its effects, like a black hole whose presence we discern by the debris around it. The metaphor isn’t perfect, since artists throw off light while black holes absorb it, but in Wright’s case he might absorb the personalities of the women and disciples around him. The novel’s fundamental tension revolves around how Wright “really” is versus how he’s perceived, and the novel’s strength comes from leaving that tension unresolved: we’re left with a debate more than a resolution, as we so often are in life. That’s mimesis to the world and faithful to the view of the great artist as inexplicable.

Tadashi sometimes strikes an aggressive posture for a seemingly passive character, but all of his passion shows through passive aggressiveness—perhaps the act of “writing” a history of Frank Lloyd Wright that often doesn’t show him in a flattering light is his ultimate revenge, and one we are meant to see through as we proceed through the novel, and especially in its last pages. Tadashi also undermines some of the novel’s claims; Miriam, Wright and others ceaselessly vilify and try to use the press. At one point, Miriam thinks that, “The papers were full of the story, headlines trumpeting disaster, the least detail pried from the wreckage by the ghouls of the press…” This description might be one of the more charitable considerations of the press. One wonders if Wright would have thought of Boyle what he does of the press, but Boyle has the advantage of writing long after the fact, when a reinterpretation of a figure who slides perilously towards myth can, in turn, re-appropriate that figure for the present. Boyle succeeds in doing so with panache that fortunately defies my analytic descriptions.

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