Considering how consistently, shockingly good he is, it always surprises me how few people have read T.C. Boyle. Of his fifteen novels, at least four are stone-cold classics and one of them deserves to be canonized. The most compelling thing about his work is the way he’s able to graft fairly weighty issues onto narrative engines that develop and maintain some serious momentum; they never get bogged down in their own importance at the expense of telling an entertaining tale. He’s equally adept at writing purely fictional tales like The Tortilla Curtain (Mexican immigration), A Friend of the Earth (environmental collapse), and Talk Talk (identity theft and digital security) and historical fiction that mines the lives of real people for allegorical heft: World’s End (explorer Mungo Park); The Inner Circle (sex researcher Alfred Kinsey); and The Women (the wives – and loves – of architect Frank Lloyd Wright). Underlying all these tales is a vague sense of creeping dread: Boyle’s novels rarely end well for any of his characters. I don’t know how he does it, but his books never fail to make me deeply uncomfortable. I realize that’s not for everyone.
This is certainly true of The Women, a book which, I have to admit, seemed overly – and unusually – simplistic for much of its length before deepening and darkening in its final third. By telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story (you know his work: Fallingwater, at right; the Guggenheim Museum; Robie House) through his interactions with four women, Boyle almost seems to be angling for an oddly crass subtext that goes something like this: “Bitches be crazy.” I’ve always known Boyle to imbue his characters with a rich and complex inner life, so the way the characters, and one in particular (whom I’ll discuss in a moment), are drawn left me with some difficult questions.
Before getting to that shortcoming, though, it’s worth talking about the book’s structure, which is kind of brilliant. Boyle’s novel focuses, as I said, on Wright’s relationships with four women, but it’s told in the form of a novel written by Tadashi Sato, a fictional apprentice of Wright’s at Taliesin (the architect’s Wisconsin compound), and translated by the equally fictional Seamus O’Flaherty. So it’s Boyle telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story through the eyes of four women as related by a Japanese architect and translated by an Irish American author. Oh, and the whole thing is told in reverse chronological order. In addition to the narrative possibilities afforded by the unconventional structure, Boyle also has fun with the conceit in other ways, commenting on the occasional floridness of his prose by pawning it off on the translator. At one point Boyle writes, ” . . . he could think of nothing but the excitement of the affair at hand, the old libidinous fires restoked . . .” and footnotes it with an aside from Sato: “One of those curious overheated phrases of O’Flaherty-San, which we will let stand.” It’s fun watching an author of Boyle’s talent play. I eat this stuff up.
So the novel begins its first proper chapter (after a lengthy introduction where we meet Sato and Wright and are oriented to life at Taliesin) by telling the story of how Wright met third wife Olgivanna while still married to second wife Miriam; then it skips backward to show us how he met Miriam after the tragic (real-life) murder of his lover Mamah and her two children; then goes backward one step further to show us his introduction to Mamah while still married to first wife Kitty. It’s not really a book about Wright, except in how we see him reflected in the eyes of Sato and the women who love him, so anyone wanting Wright’s biography will be disappointed (although I certainly learned more about Wright from The Women than I expected).
And that brings me to the problem I mentioned earlier. The women, as related by Boyle through Sato and O’Flaherty, aren’t particularly likable. I don’t see this as a problem by itself. I don’t demand likable characters. Flawed is good. Flawed is real. But Olgivanna, his third wife and thirty years his junior, is really the only one who comes off at all positively (although by the time Sato meets her at Taliesin she’s a stern taskmaster, worn down by life). Kitty is more or less a non-entity, the spurned wife who won’t grant him a divorce. Mamah is a pretentious, solipsistic Free Spirit™ who views her affair with Wright as a way of thumbing her nose at conventionality and the patriarchy. And Miriam, an obsessive, drug-addicted Southern belle, takes up much of the narrative in troubling ways. She’s given to flights of extreme melodrama, picking fights with Wright, leaving him at the drop of a hat, and eventually stalking him (and resorting to threats and vandalism) when he takes up with Olgivanna during one of their separations.
Maybe all this happened. Maybe Boyle is playing it straight. But it does trouble me that none of the women are here to defend themselves. Miriam especially is painted as such a horrible shrew that I simultaneously felt bad for her and wanted Wright to push her in front of a streetcar. And that’s kind of a shame, because the book really is otherwise excellent. Wright (as a character) is certainly fascinating, even while it’s still a mystery to me why he was so popular with the ladies (charisma, I guess; some men have it.), and Boyle relates his various struggles (with money, with building Taliesin and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, with – of course – women) in prose that is as evocative as ever.
And the final third is, as I mentioned at the top, painted in Boyle’s typical shades of black. Ending with Mamah’s murder (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s alluded to throughout the book and it’s in the historical record, fer cryin’ out loud) seems in some ways to be an indictment of Wright’s relentless philandering. Her death is what led to his calamitous relationship with Miriam (they met after she wrote to him upon reading of Mamah’s murder in the news), and it cast a pall over Taliesin for years. I don’t know if it’s technically the moral of the story – keep it in your pants, boys! – but it’s no accident that Boyle ended The Women with one of their deaths.
The copy on the back of the book reads, “Is it easy to live with a genius?” The definitive answer seems to be “no.” But Boyle also makes it clear that it takes a particular kind of woman to want to live with a genius . . . and the result is never going to be good.
The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (1987)