A com­plex, multi- flawed struc­ture

An­gela Ben­nie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

HE strode through life like a colos­sus, with his long black cape swirling to the rhythms of the winds around him, his hair spilling down to his shoul­ders, ‘‘ a weave of thun­der­head and cu­mu­lus’’, his Malacca cane stab­bing the air like a ma­gi­cian’s wand. He was Frank Lloyd Wright, the great­est ar­chi­tect in the US in his time: in­deed, the great­est Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect of all time, so the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects has it.

This At­las never shrugged; he danced, mes­meris­ing all who came within his ken with ‘‘ the mag­netism of his ge­nius’’, ‘‘ his vol­canic en­ergy’’, ‘‘ his flash­ing eyes, his float­ing hair’’.

This is the Frank Lloyd Wright, the foun­tain­head at the cen­tre of T. C. Boyle’s lat­est novel, The Women, his fic­tional bi­og­ra­phy of the great man, pri­vate and pub­lic. Boyle is rather keen on this ano­ma­lous lit­er­ary form, fic­tional bi­og­ra­phy. There is, among many oth­ers, for ex­am­ple, his fic­tional ‘‘ study’’ of sex re­searcher Al­fred Kin­sey, The In­ner Cir­cle ( 2004); there is his fic­tional ‘‘ por­trait’’ of the Kel­logg broth­ers of corn­flakes fame, The Road to Wel­lville ( 1993).

His first novel, the ac­claimed Wa­ter Mu­sic ( 1982), was fash­ioned out of the painstak­ing but dull prose of the jour­nals of an ob­scure 18th­cen­tury ex­plorer, Mungo Park, turn­ing it into a rol­lick­ing pi­caresque, a high-ad­ven­ture story filled with imag­i­na­tive truth of a dif­fer­ent kind.

Why write the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives of con­ven­tional bi­og­ra­phy, said Boyle, in a re­cent in­ter­view: ‘‘ They never work. The his­tor­i­cal im­pulse over­whelms the aes­thetic im­pulse and you wind up with a rather dull read.’’

On the ev­i­dence of The Women, a dull read is not what Boyle is about.

Here is a highly charged piece of writ­ing, flam­boy­ant, risky, some­times florid, at times un­apolo­get­i­cally histri­onic, brim­ming over with a manic kind of imag­i­na­tive en­ergy of its own. It is as if a mad al­chemist has been let loose on the ma­te­rial, one who rel­ishes, al­most wal­lows, in his cho­sen task of trans­mut­ing plain, his­tor­i­cal facts into a work of the imagination, a mar­vel­lous fic­tion with an au­then­tic life and truth of its own.

There is, how­ever, some­thing strange that takes place in the midst of all this al­chem­i­cal fis­sion in the process of read­ing it.

In the first place, Boyle makes the de­ci­sion to tell this story of Frank Lloyd Wright through the eyes, thoughts, psy­cholo­gies and char­ac­ters of the women in the ar­chi­tect’s tu­mul­tuous life, rather than through his au­tho­rial fo­cus on the man him­self.

He also struc­tures his tale into sec­tions, each writ­ten from the point of view of one of the women. Thus wan­der­ing through the nar­ra­tive is Cather­ine ( or Kitty), his first wife of 20 years, with whom he had six chil­dren. Then there is a sec­tion writ­ten from the point of view of Mamah Borth­wick Cheney, the lover with whom he eloped to Europe, and who then lived with him on his es­tate, Taliesin, in Wis­con­sin, un­til her shock­ing death in 1914 when, along with her two chil­dren and four other mem­bers of the Wright house­hold, she is mur­dered by one of the ser­vants, hacked to death with an axe.

There is a sec­tion from the point of view of Maud Miriam Noel, the green-eyed south­ern belle and mor­phine ad­dict, mad as a cut snake, his next wife, and one of his most bril­liant, mes­meris­ing cre­ations.

And fi­nally there is Olga Ivanovna Mi­lanoff, a Mon­tene­gran writer and dancer, his last wife, 33 years younger than Wright and with whom he had a daugh­ter, Io­vanna.

Boyle also de­cides to frac­ture the nar­ra­tive struc­ture, open­ing his story at its end­ing, work­ing back­wards to the beginning, thus

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