A complex, multi- flawed structure
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