The Women by TC Boyle: ‘The absence of a sumptuously imagined bath of words…’

Despite a fair few prestigious awards, TC Boyle is not taken altogether seriously by the literary establishment. (This is, perhaps, as it should be. Who wants to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, after all?) There are probably a handful of reasons why. He likes to put the entertainment of his readers ahead of critical kudos; he can be quite cruel to his characters, placing them in situations that provide us, the reader, with entertainment, albeit entertainment sieved through a muslin of schadenfreude; he has something of the punk and something of the hippy about him; he is playful; he is also hard to categorise, moving from historical novels through contemporary thrillers to Coen Brothers-esque marijuana fables and socio-political dramas. I’ve always had the impression Boyle followed his muse, wheresoever it took him. It may be that the fact that he and his wife are now living in a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright that informed his muse this time around, The Women dallying in the great man’s shadow – but there is a difference.

The novel opens with the kind of rollicking and rambunctious sentence we’ve all grown to know and love from Boyle:

‘I didn’t know much about automobiles at the time – still don’t, for that matter – but it was an automobile that took me to Taliesin in the fall of 1932, through a country alternately fortified with trees and rolled out like a carpet to the back wall of its barns, hayricks and farmhouses, through towns with names like Black Earth, Mazomanie and Coon Rock, where no-one in living memory had ever seen a Japanese face.’

This is Sato, the narrator. Or one of our narrators. The Women is, you see, divided into three sections, each of which is named after a woman: Olgivanna, Miriam and Mamah. Each of those sections is introduced by Sato, writing long after the fact. Sato has related his version of events to his Irish son-in-law, who has written the rest of the novel. There is a sly albeit one-sided interplay between the two in Sato’s intros. There is an additional level of complication, which will be evident to anyone who knows anything about Frank Lloyd Wright: Olgivanna was his last wife, Mamah his second. Whilst Sato’s introductions (largely) cover his own time as a protege at Taliesin (the country home Wright built for Mamah and rebuilt for Miriam and Olgivanna), the rest of the novel covers three separate time periods, effectively moving the reader in reverse.

When you start to read, you think this is a novel in the vein of The Inner Circle or Riven Rock, which is to say, a fictional novel in which a fictional character inhabits a space alongside a real person (or at least Boyle’s version of a real person). Only the introductions retain that similarity, though. As the title goes some way to indicating, the reader is largely in the heads of the women themselves (although, again, we have to remember that these are women reimagined by Boyle’s Irish son-in-law subsequent to tinkering by old man Sato). As such, the first thirty or forty pages require a certain amount of shifting about in the metaphorical driving seat. The sense you normally get with Boyle (of luxuriating in a sumptuously imagined bath of words) is strangely absent.

By the time you reach the conclusion of Part 1 on page 168, you think you have the measure of the book only to find Part 2 – called, simply, ‘Miriam’, after the paramour who dogged Olgivanna in Part 1 and died – throws you again. We’re going backwards a la Underworld. If anything signifies an author wanting to be seen to be taking himself seriously more than ‘the narrative that goes backwards’ – well, I’d love to know what it is. The narrative nest in the beginning of the book and the backwards device arrests you, gets in the way – why is Boyle doing this? What is he hoping to achieve? Are we on a journey to the heart of darkness, looking to see what made the man? It’s not an entirely satisfactory device and it gets wholly in the way of the story (you find yourself looking up into the arches of the stage, examining the lighting, sneaking glimpses of the actors changing in the wings). What’s more, Wright grows arguably more distant as the book proceeds. This is, after all, the story of the women – but the women’s stories are only really told in the reflected light of Frank Lloyd Wright so – what gives?

Boyle has admitted in an interview that he kinda sorta fell in love with the character of Miriam and in some respects she looms larger than many of the other characters in the novel. But even Miriam’s story is weakened by the imperative of her sudden death early on. It may be that there is a novel to be made of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life but – it strikes this reader – telling the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life is not all TC Boyle is setting out to do here. It feels (and I’m more than willing to admit that this may just be ‘to me’) like Boyle is writing with an eye on the prize, as it were. Or prizes. Story is sacrificed to artifice. This is a fussy novel. The warmth which we’ve almost t aken as a prerequisite since Friend of the Earth (his previous and only misfire) is missing. Where Boyle’s novels, as a rule, leave you with a sense of wonder, a gasping, awe-struck, ‘look at what he can do, ma!?’, The Women leaves you wondering what it was all about. What was the point? Why the nested table of narrators? Why the whole backwards thing? I honestly don’t know.

All of which isn’t to say that The Women  is a disaster. It isn’t. By any means. The fact is, as a result of everything else he has done, all of the incomparable novels and short stories, he has set the bar terrifically high for himself. The Women recalibrates things somewhat. With The Women TC Boyle shows that he is just a man after all, a man capable of pulling out all of the stops when it comes to writing whizz-bang-pow fiction that’ll knock your socks off, sure, but a man for all that, flawed, and in the final analysis, as able to write a lesser novel as the next man.

Any Cop?: If you’ve yet to pick up a novel by TC Boyle, don’t let this be your point of entry. The hardback costs almost £13 – why not go pick up three other novels by Boyle in the old Waterstones 3for2 (I’d recommend Riven Rock, Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain, for starters) and get up to speed. By the time you’re done, you’ll no doubt be able to snap up The Women in paperback. We’ll all be a little more forgiving by then…

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