T.C. Boyle

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"The Women"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 24, 2009)

“He ran our lives, that was the long and short of it. Daddy Frank. How many times had I heard one apprentice or another call him that behind his back? Daddy Frank, paterfamilias of Taliesin. He stirred the pot continually, interfering in our personal affairs, our amours and disputes and loyalties, even as he squelched our initiative and individualism as fiercely as he’d asserted his own when he was apprentice to Louis Sullivan a generation earlier.”

In this un-put-down-able novel by T. C. Boyle, Tadashi Sato, a twenty-five-year-old Japanese apprentice, arrives at Taliesin to work for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932 and remains for nine years, doing everything that Wright asks of him, from running errands and peeling potatoes to helping to draft some of Wright’s most spectacular designs. Living at Taliesin in rural Spring Green,Wisconsin, for long periods of time, Tadashi sees Wright in all his moods, experiencing the effects of his monstrous ego firsthand, but he also regards him as a genius and powerful influence on his own architectural career. Years later, Tadashi Sato, now a successful Japanese architect, teams up with Seamus O’Flaherty, his grandson-in-law, as the ostensible author of the book-within-this-book about the women in Wright’s life, their interactions with Wright, and their ultimate effects on Wright’s turbulent career.

The women in Wright’s life, as we see them here, are, like Wright, passionate, spontaneous, determined to accomplish their goals, and unwilling to let anything stand in their way, and Boyle uses their passions to structure the novel brilliantly. His first wife, Kitty, is an earth mother whose devotion to their children and to Wright allows her to believe that one day he will return to her. The lover who replaces her in Wright’s affections, Mamah (pronounced MAY-ma) Borthwick Cheney, is an early feminist who is brutally murdered at Taliesin, the home Wright built for her (a fact we learn at the beginning of the novel). His second wife, Maud Miriam Noel, is a morphine addict whose ego is, if possible, even larger than Wright’s and whose pathological jealousy makes her downright dangerous. His last lover, and eventual wife, Olgivanna Milanoff Hinzenberg, is a woman who has masqueraded as Wright’s housekeeper, while pregnant with Wright’s out-of-wedlock child. If these issues are not enough to keep a reader intrigued, the novel also includes two fires which burn Taliesin to the ground, an unrelenting posse of reporters whose aggressive behavior rivals anything that present day paparazzi could dream up, continuing financial troubles which Wright resolutely ignores, and lawsuits galore.

If author Boyle had told this as a straight narrative, he might have been accused of writing a pot-boiler, so sensational are the stories about Wright’s life and relationships. In a masterstroke, however, he makes Tadashi the narrator, allowing Tadashi to comment on the action from a somewhat naïve and culturally divorced point of view, emphasizing those issues which so shocked the general public that Wright and his lovers became pariahs. More importantly, Boyle also turns the chronology upside down, having Tadashi tell the story backward in time from Olgivanna, Wright’s last wife, whom Tadashi knew, back to his first wife Kitty, for whom Tadashi had to get information from his collaborator O’Flaherty. This highly effective change of chronology allows Boyle to drop hints, foreshadow events (in retrospect), and build a great deal of suspense, something that would not have been possible with a normal chronology. The overall effect is stunning, and the final scenes (though chronologically the earliest), involving the murders of Mamah and several others at Taliesin, are the most dramatic and emotionally rending scenes in the book.

Wright’s architectural genius is never in question, and the author spends relatively little time discussing the various architectural landmarks that are Wright’s legacy. The building of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo gains attention primarily because Wright was accompanied there by Miriam, the strongest, most complex, and least likable of “his” women, an addict so close to the edge that anything could set her off—and usually did. Taliesin in Wisconsin, also gains some attention because Wright built it for Mamah, a woman so devoted to Wright that she gave up her children to run away with him, and because Taliesin is where she was murdered. (Ironically, T. C. Boyle himself lives in one of Wright’s houses, the first Wright house in California, but he resists the temptation to feature it in the novel.)

Wright was a dominating and contradictory person, one so self-absorbed that Kitty once said that “self-love [was] the only kind of love Frank was capable of.” Mamah describes him “prancing at her side, his cane twirling and the tails of his cape in flapping the brisk breeze he generated all on his own.” The flamboyant Miriam, however, says, “He seems so austere, almost Puritanical. He needs reforming. Needs a good dose of culture beyond all his drawings and his houses.” And Olgivanna describes him as “a force of nature…an avalanche of need and emotion that swept all before it.” Despite the seeming contradictions, Frank Lloyd Wright won the passionate commitments of all these women, and not one of them left him voluntarily. Like the apprentices whose lives he ran and for whom he “squelched initiative and individualism,” his wives and lovers also remained devoted to him, no matter how much opprobrium they may have suffered personally because of their relationships with him.

Boyle pulls out all the stops here, creating a complex novel that is intellectually and emotionally involving, at the same time that it is masterfully structured and vibrantly written. Ultimately, however, the reader agrees with the questions raised by narrator Tadashi Sato, when he asks: “Who was [Wright] after all? The hero who was paraded through the streets of Tokyo after five years’ work on the Imperial Hotel (and cost overruns that nearly bankrupted Baron Okura’s backers) to triumphant shouts of ‘Banzai, Wrieto-San,’ as he claims in his autobiography? Or the profligate on artist who had to be removed from the site, the job, the country, in disfavor, if not disgrace? Was he the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?” Readers will ponder these questions long after the book is finished.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 83 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Women at author's website

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"The Inner Circle"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark DEC 12, 2005)

"But let me step back a moment, because I don't want to get off on the wrong foot -- this isn't about me, this is about Prok, and Prok is dead, and I'm sitting here in my study, the key turned in the lock, the sorry tepid remains of a Zombie cocktail at my elbow, trying to talk into this machine and sort out my thoughts while Iris paces up and down the hall in her heels, stopping on every third revolution to rattle the doorknob and remind me in a muffled shout that we're going to be late. Late for what, I'd like to know."

John Milk is our narrator for this fictional portrait. He is first introduced to Zoology Professor Alfred C. Kinsey or "Prok" as he later calls him, during a "marriage" biology class in the autumn of 1939, while a senior at Indiana University. It was Laura Feeney's idea, though a mere acquaintance, to fake a marriage engagment in order to enroll in the class. This class is the first of its kind and promises to reveal more than any other. The lecture hall is full to beyond capacity with those students reported to be engaged as well as many faculty members.

"Today we shall discuss the physiology of sexual response and orgasm in the human animal." With this opening line Professor Kinsey proceeds to explain how the male and female genitalia behaves and shows actual full color, close up slides of the circumcised phallus and the vagina awaiting it. When the lecture is over, "people collected their things in silence and moved up the aisles in a somber processional. There was none of the jostling and joking you would normally expect form a mob of undergraduates set loose after an hour's confinement." Instead their eyes are averted. Though at first John is afraid to look or touch Laura Feeney, he does break the ice. John and Laura, though shy about expressing it, sense the historical importance of this lecture.

By the end of the course, John Milk is a convert to Professor Kinsey's cause; he understands that the only way to know exactly what people do when they mate is to look at it scientifically, to do what Professor Kinsey is asking, for each to give up their "personal histories" so that they have enough data for case studies. Unexpectedly to John, he becomes Prok's first employee initially helping to statistically organize the data and then learning the techniques that help put people at ease so that they are comfortable giving up their most personal histories. Collecting data is Prok's main goal, "because, as Prok said, over and over, you could never have enough data."

Whereas John insists that his aim is to tell us about "Proc," the book can't help but be ultimately about John. He often leads off with the question, "And how did I feel about all this?" as he shares his initial sexual naiveity and the events that take place under Proc's encouragement. We learn about his sexual encounters both with Proc and Proc's wife, Mac; his courtship with Iris; the countless road trips -- first alone with Proc, and then as the "inner circle" grows with Corcoran and Rutledge. But mainly this is the story of how the beliefs and the activities of the "inner circle" affect him and Iris. Kinsey is a manipulative and charismatic man with a single minded goal. John is his apostle, faithful to the message. The tricky thing is that the "human animal" may be capable of much when it comes to sexual activity and its instinctual need but, for most, and as is the case with Iris, in real life, human sex is not completely just a physical event. Proc may have been one of the "great original geniuses of the twentieth century," as John calls him, but his clinical demands and consequential moral corruption were not without its price to John and Iris (and, in my opinion, the generations that followed).

T.C. Boyle is a fluid writer. He manages for our narrator to maintain a detachment (as required by Kinsey) as he reveals some of the more sordid dealings and case histories and yet to also show the cracks that unwittingly emerge as John tries to maintain the detachment. The story is a compelling read and of course, because it is about a sex researcher, at times racy. (I read this while on vacation, which turned out to be a good choice!) The actual research methods are also of interest -- statistically it is important to have a lot of data and to have that data represent every extreme as well as the norm. So how does one go about finding the variety of case histories required?

It is not easy to like our narrator and by the end of the book Dr. Kinsey is certainly more monster than genius. On the otherhand, the subject matter is intruiging. Perhaps one of the main thoughts I walked away with is how much my generation has taken the "human animal" theory of sexuality to heart. Whereas when Kinsey began his research sexuality was still in the closet, by the time the seventies rolled around (and thanks to birth control pills), we could easily and unconciously act out Kinsey's theories. Whether, T.C. Boyle meant to or not, I see The Inner Circle as outlining the pitfalls of the whole sexual revolution for the next few generations, beginning with that of John Milk's marriage. Yet, I suspect, Kinsey would insist that humans have always been like this and that he merely cataloged and published the natural activities. Certainly a good discussion for a book group would be if one can publish such research without effect.

And then, on the hand, I have to note that as much as we think things change, they really don't. Rather than catagorize humans as heterosexual or homosexual, Proc introduced a scale by which interviewees could rate themselves and their leanings in same sex relations. By far more realistic than a simple stigmatic label that is applied to people today. "Sex shy" was another favorite phrase that Proc used. In order for Proc and his inner circle to collect as much data as they did, an awful lot of people had to give up their sexual history whether they were "sex shy" or not. I have a hard time putting myself into this situation and wonder if I too would volunteeringly "give up" my history for the sake of the study. What is it about us human animals that would motivate us?

If this book had not been written by T.C. Boyle, I doubt I would have read it. As such, it did turn out to be one of my recommended books for the year.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 49 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Inner Circle at publisher''s website



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

T.C. BoyleT. Coraghessan Boyle was born and grew up in Peekshill, New York in the Hudson Valley. He received a Ph.D. degree in 19th Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, and his B.A. in English and History from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978.

His books are available in a number of foreign languages, including German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Danish, Swedish and Lithuanian. His stories have appeared in most of the major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus and Granta, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards.

He currently lives near Santa Barbara, California with his wife and three children.

 

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