Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Women by T.C. Boyle

Viking Books, February 2009

It's always interesting to see what happens when new books collide with other recently published titles on similar subjects or themes—when different authors, working more or less in isolation, happen to alight on the same subject simultaneously. Such was the case four years ago when Pulitzer Prize winners Philip Roth and Michael Chabon completed two extremely different novels involving alternate Jewish history scenarios at roughly the same time. Roth’s The Plot Against America—a nightmare vision in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and, as president, steers the U.S. clear of World War II but brings the war home to American Jews—hit bookstores just as Chabon was wrapping up The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a hardboiled detective novel set in an imagined Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlement in Alaska. Random House withheld The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for two full publishing cycles, reportedly to avoid confusion with The Plot Against America.

Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves confronting a logjam of recently published and forthcoming books concerned—at least in part—with the notorious extramarital affair of legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and the brutal massacre and fire at the couple’s Wisconsin home, Taliesin, that brought the relationship and Mamah Borthwick’s life to an abrupt conclusion on August 15, 1914.

Here’s the basic chronology: In 1903, Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband, Edwin Cheney, hired Wright, then 35 and just emerging as an architect of renown, to design their Oak Park, Illinois home. The Cheneys and Wrights (both families resident in Oak Park) became fast friends. Sometime between 1903 and 1907 Frank and Mamah began a sexual relationship and in 1909, Frank, father of six, and Mamah, mother of two, left their families and moved to Europe, touching off an international scandal that proved a sensation in the press. Wright, still married (his first wife, Catherine, wouldn’t give him a divorce until 1922), returned to Oak Park in 1910 to put his career back in order, and began construction on Taliesin, a Spring Green, Wisconsin farm and estate. Wright moved with the now-divorced Mamah Borthwick to Taliesin in the fall of 1911, again creating a sensation in the press and causing deep resentment among their neighbors that would persist until Wright’s 1959 death. Wright slowly tried to rebuild his reputation as an architect and Borthwick became the American English translator for Swedish Woman Movement philosopher Ellen Key. In summer 1914, Wright and Borthwick hired two Barbadians, a former Pullman porter named Julian Carlton and his wife, Gertrude, to serve in the living quarters at Taliesin. On August 15, while Wright was in Chicago with his eldest son, Lloyd, completing construction on a sprawling (and now long gone) outdoor concert venue called Midway Gardens, Julian Carlton attacked and murdered Borthwick, her two children, a draftsman, a gardener, a stableman, and a carpenter’s son with a shingling ax and set Taliesin afire, killing seven and leaving the house in ruins.

The first of the three books concerning the Wright-Borthwick affair, William R. Drennan’s Death in a Prairie House (2006), is a historical inquiry into the Taliesin murders that drew lukewarm reviews at its time of publication, but garnered renewed attention with the success of the second book, Nancy Horan’s bestselling novel Loving Frank (2007), a warm and revealing character study of Mamah Borthwick just released in paperback this summer. The third is PEN/Faulkner Award winner T.C. Boyle’s The Women, due out in February 2009.

Though Drennan’s ostensible purpose is to unravel the mystery of the Taliesin massacre, he also spends much of the book weaving together strands of other historians’ research on Wright to come to some vague conclusions about the roots of Wright’s architectural ideas in 19th-century American transcendentalism and the massacre’s influence on his later work, as well as a handful of other received biographical details, which is why his book didn’t really wow the critics when it debuted in 2006. The success of Loving Frank—and its author’s championing of Drennan’s work—has helped revive interest in Death in a Prairie House.

Loving Frank, well-received by readers and critics alike, focuses specifically on the Wright-Borthwick relationship. Although it’s not a first-person narrative, it operates from Borthwick’s perspective for 90% of the book. The perspective shifts away only after Borthwick is murdered. Because so little is actually known of Borthwick’s inner life, and the only surviving glimpses inside Borthwick’s mind come from a handful of letters she wrote to Ellen Key, the Mamah Borthwick of Loving Frank is predominately a character of her author’s invention. Such is the case with all “the women” in Boyle’s book of the same name, and while it’s not the purpose of this review to compare the two books, it’s interesting to see where the writers’ imagined versions of these little-documented historical figures meet and diverge.

The fundamental difference between The Women and Loving Frank is that Boyle’s book looks more broadly—and also more deeply—at the entire sweep of the relationships that made the personal life of Frank Lloyd Wright a lurid front-page sensation. Though the Taliesin massacre obviously marked the end of Mamah Borthwick’s life, it occurred just at the midpoint of Wright’s life and relatively early in his career; his four most famous designs—Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel (1923), Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater (1939), Racine, Wisconsin's Johnson Wax Building (1944), and Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum (1959)—still lay ahead of him. The tragic events of August 15, 1914 were nowhere near the end of his career in the scandal sheets either, and The Women chronicles his affairs with all three of the women who made him a favorite target of the “yellow” journalists of the day: Borthwick; his eventual second wife, Maude Miriam Noel; and his third and final wife, Olgivanna Ivanovna Lazovich Hinzenberg.

Granted, these are small distinctions when one considers how much the subjects of The Women and Loving Frank really overlap, and the possibility that the reading public has already gotten its fill of the tabloid life of an architect fifty years dead in the last two years. But what really troubled me about The Women when I began reading it was not so much my concern that it might rehash Loving Frank, but rather the sense that Boyle seemed to be repeating himself. I got that feeling right from the book’s epigram, an oft-repeated quote from Wright that’s also paraphrased in Loving Frank:

Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance.

The Women is constructed as a narrative written by Sato Tadashi, a Japanese architect who (in Boyle’s invention) apprenticed to Wright at Taliesin in the 1930s, with the assistance of his grandson-in-law, Irish-American novelist Seamus O’Flaherty, who added his own rhetorical flourishes and imaginative forays into the minds of the characters (which, incidentally, Tadashi occasionally questions in wonderful footnotes sprinkled throughout the book). The Women begins in Tadashi’s voice, describing how he first came to Taliesin as an apprentice who paid tuition for the privilege of doing the master’s bidding, be it draftsman’s work, wood-chopping, or corn-shucking.

I experienced a disquieting sense of déjà vu when Tadashi, in the novel’s first few pages, arrives at Taliesin in his sporty, just-purchased 1924 Stutz Bearcat. Within minutes of meeting Tadashi, Wright looks over the car and says, “Isn’t it a bit extravagant? That is, wouldn’t it have been wiser, all the way around, if you’d put your money into the fellowship?”

The great-man arrogance that places his work above everything and presumes that all of those around him—even the newest arrivals—will do likewise, should seem eerily familiar to anyone who has read The Inner Circle, Boyle’s masterful 2003 novel about pioneering sexologist Alfred “Prok” Kinsey. The Inner Circle is also written from the point of view of a young disciple/employee who struggles with—but always submits to—the single-minded demands, whims, preoccupations, and endless pontifications of his genius-master. The introduction to The Women concludes with Tadashi unleashing a litany of doubts about Wright, and wondering whether his personal shortcomings and grievous sins made him unworthy of the devotion of his acolytes:

Still, the question remains: Did I know the man we Japanese revere as Wrieto-san? Who was he, after all? … Was he the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?

Fortunately, this is not Tadashi’s book in the way The Inner Circle revolved around narrator John Milk and his adventures as Kinsey’s oft-conflicted right-hand man. The Women, appropriately enough, belongs to the women in Wright’s life. Except for the introductions to the book’s three parts (and in those wonderful footnotes, where the ever-tricksterish Boyle twists his knife and has his fun), Tadashi stays out of it.

Most of all, The Women belongs to Maude Miriam Noel, who seizes the spotlight at every opportunity like Gloria Swanson’s tragic fallen starlet in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard—even though she’s only playing the part. Boyle’s Miriam is every bit the self-absorbed, self-dramatizing, declaiming manipulator Frank Lloyd Wright is, and then some. She figures prominently in nearly every portion of the book, and from the moment we meet her slipping warily into Tijuana in search of a farmacia that will supply her with morphine, we’re hooked. The drug seems to fuel Miriam no matter what her purpose, whether she needs it to quell anxiety or distress or to help her affect the alluring Memphis belle languor that she uses to seduce the great man at their first meeting. Miriam’s effect on the book is well-nigh hypnotic. Boyle has written some memorable women—Talk Talk’s tenacious Dana Halter is only the most recent—but his Miriam Noel tops them all.

And like his Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright, Boyle’s Miriam Noel is very much his own. Adhering slavishly to the historical record, such as it is, is in no way Boyle’s goal here, and rather than attempting to enumerate instances in which he may stray from historical accuracy, I’d rather characterize the “truth” he means to convey about Wright and his women: namely, that Wright sought out some match for his own arrogance and elevated sense of self in all the women he involved himself with after his first wife, Kitty, and in Mamah Borthwick, Olga Milanov, and Miriam Noel—most of all—he found it. Again, the aim here in Boyle’s fiction is not fact, but truth, something much more subjective, and also more interesting.

That said, one of the challenges of writing a novel that concerns fairly well-known history—especially history that’s become much more widely known through the writing of others in the last three years—is how to build toward a dramatic climax that many or perhaps most of his readers will know is coming. Moreover, when that ending is an event as garish and devastating as the Taliesin murders, the writer needs to deliver, and bring something, some signature to the moment that’s not already there. A writer of Boyle’s acknowledged talent for inhabiting the minds of his characters has to make the principal players both real and his own—not just to make well-considered, educated guesses, but to know the unknowable and bring it to life. You know that when he gets to Julian Carlton, the dark-skinned Barbadian who briefly served as a butler and handyman at Taliesin before committing the grisly murders, Boyle is going to build him from the inside out, and you know how risky a venture that is for a white author taking on a real-life black murderer. (It's easy enough to say Carlton's race doesn't matter until you recall that the cause of death for two of his victims was officially recorded as "Killed by Negro.") Has any book been more lavishly praised, initially, and summarily excoriated, subsequently, than The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron’s journey inside the mind of the slave rebellion leader? Julian Carlton was no Nat Turner, but the potential problem here is the same. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1967, Styron’s “psycho-history” has been almost universally condemned by African-American scholars in the last 20 years as textbook white single-consciousness, arrogance and ignorance masquerading as art. Boyle is a more skillful and insightful writer than Styron ever was, and in no way does he share Styron's inclination to throw his subject to the lynch mob (it'd be a different story if Boyle had Carlton sleeping with Mamah Borthwick, but that doesn’t happen here). Boyle’s Julian Carlton explodes with nuance, empathy, and spine-tingling rage and menace. Horan’s Carlton, by comparison, is a detached and timid gloss.

The other challenge Boyle faces in this book, appropriately enough for a book about Frank Lloyd Wright, is architectural. As mentioned earlier, the defining moment of Wright’s personal life—the murders of August 15, 1914—occurred when Wright was 47, some 45 years before his death, and nearly 30 years before his career really peaked. Most of his greatest achievements as an architect, and his relationships with two of the women with whom The Women is concerned, hadn’t yet begun. So Boyle’s challenge was to take the natural climax of the book and timeshift it to the end of the narrative. He does just that, but refreshingly, he does it without using it to frame the events of the book. Although Tadashi alludes to the murders in some footnotes as if the event is well-known to the reader, they aren’t played as some sort of cheap device, along the lines of, “Black hand, bloody hatchet—how did we get here?”

Boyle/Tadashi simply presents the narratives of the three women—Olgivanna, Miriam, and Mamah—in reverse-chronological order, making you feel the inevitability of what you’ve already read by revealing the earlier events that predicated the rest of the story. It’s magnificent storytelling, rich in the invention of the minutest details of imagined lives. Nearly every page is infused with the arrogance of the Great, a self-anointed cultural elite who believe themselves above the Average and its constant encroachment on the fragile framework of their constructed lives. In Miriam Noel and Frank Lloyd Wright you feel the pull of massive, posturing egos toward one another, and you get to bask in the glow of Miriam’s stranger-than-fiction variation on the avenging harpy—one drawn largely from real-life events, since most of her vengeance was played out in the press by her own design. And Mamah Borthwick makes a perfect bourgeois bohemian, blithely unaware of how anchored she is to some portions of the mores of her class, even as she’s set herself adrift from others.

Curiously underdrawn, conversely, are Wright’s first and last wives, Catherine (aka Kitty) and Olgivanna. In Kitty’s case, on the surface, the reason seems obvious: the span of Wright’s life covered in The Women begins with his departure from their marriage (albeit 14 years before their actual divorce). In The Women, Kitty simply isn’t the character that Mamah and Miriam are; neither proto-feminist iconoclast nor drug-addled, manipulating tragic heroine, she’s just the abandoned first wife. If The Women, in one respect, is about the type of women who fall into the orbit of greatness—in Wright’s case, a greatness that seeks its equal rather than mere ornament—it’s not really about Kitty, who came into Wright’s world before he was great and before, perhaps, anyone but his mother knew he would be. She was simply a teenager in love with an ambitious apprentice. Kitty fell for a talented young man; her successors joined forces with a genius.

Where Olgivanna fits here is more perplexing. She came to Wright fresh off her involvement with an Eastern European philosopher of some odd repute, thus carrying with her a modest quotient of intelligentsia cred. This in and of itself may have made her capable of slaking Wright’s thirst for “complication.” As Boyle writes, Wright wasn’t just looking for sex or love; he wanted “something fraught and embattled, a relation to make the juices flow in every sense.” But whatever innate ability Olga may have had to stoke Wright’s fires was overwhelmed in the fiery crucible of Miriam’s vengeance, and her dogged determination to destroy the them both.

What Olga brought to the table in her own right isn’t evident in The Women; there’s little to suggest what attracted Wright to her in the first place. Maybe this is a limitation of the narrator: Olga is the only one of Wright’s women with whom Tadashi’s life at Taliesin actually did intersect. Because he experienced her as the cold and humorless mistress of the house, long entrenched by the time of his arrival, this experience may color (or dull) his perception. It also underscores the point that this is Miriam Noel’s book, in that of all the damage Wright's relationships did him, the Miriam nightmare was the one he brought on himself by falling for such a manipulative and unstable woman. Granted, he abandoned his children for Mamah Borthwick, but that in no way brings the massacre at Taliesin down on Wright’s head, whatever the firebrand preachers of rural Wisconsin may have suggested in his day.

To Boyle, Wright’s attraction to Miriam Noel points to fundamental contradictions at the heart of the man. There’s little reason to doubt Wright’s monumental arrogance, his belief that the trivial necessites and demands of everyday life were beneath him. Hell, on the day he deserted his family in 1909, Wright reportedly told his 13-year-old son "You're the man of the house now," and handed the boy a $900 grocery bill. Such trivialities as grocery bills and child support were all unworthy distractions from his momentous work as the world’s greatest architect, yet he actively pursued other sorts of distractions that invariably undermined his career and limited his achievements.

If this is Boyle’s point—that to understand the misfortunes Wright suffered in his relationships with women is to understand how his own penchant for drama and personal upheaval invited them—then the pain he experienced at the hands of Miriam Noel is the central episode of the story, rather than the murders at Taliesin, which really weren’t his fault. Though the massacre undeniably altered the course of Wright’s life, it obviously didn’t do so much as it could have, since he wasn't there when it happened. (A fact, Drennan notes, that has led some to speculate, without evidence or motive, that Wright himself planned the murders.) Wright’s absence on that day meant the difference between a fine architect who died young and a man who lived to become the defining American figure in his field. And who’s to say—in the absence of the career and work that followed—whether the events that day would be explored in multiple widely read books in a short three-year span nearly a century later, or whether they would simply have taken their place in the annals of sensational 20th century crimes and other homages to the tragic and bizarre.

Although, again, the point of this review is not to compare The Women with Loving Frank or Murder in a Prairie House, it’s interesting to look at one point at which the two novels intersect, and one at which you would expect them to cross paths where they do not. Keep in mind that Boyle’s book and Horan’s are very different in character. Boyle’s is a noisy book with epic sweep that works from inside the minds of multiple characters; Horan’s is a quiet, perceptive study of a single character, that Horan says she originally tried to write from multiple perspectives before abandoning that approach. For the most part, Horan works delicately around the historical record; Boyle acknowledges it and sweeps it aside when it gets in the way of his narrative, although both authors seem to have their way with history at various times. Boyle invents his characters with Wright-like audacity and disregard for how others may have constructed them; Horan isn’t nearly so bold.

One point at which you would expect these novels to meet is the time when Mamah and Frank inform their respective spouses of their affair. Horan sticks closer to Wright’s biographers on this point, placing the confessions at separate times within the privacy of their respective Oak Park homes. In The Women—significantly, in the only scene told from Kitty’s perspective—Mamah and Frank confront their spouses together after dinner at the Cheney house in a synchronized, high-minded assault on the hypocrisy of a society that dictates allegiance to loveless marriages, joint lecturers on the poetics of free love. There’s not much reason to believe this actually happened, but the fact that Boyle invents this scene and Horan doesn’t reveals something more than their respective inclinations to adhere to the traditional story: Frank was always an arrogant pontificator, no matter whose book you’re reading, but Horan’s Mamah is a woman just awoken by infatuation and love at the time she confessed her adultery to her husband, whereas Boyle’s Mamah is full of Wright's self-righteousness and already deeply entrenched in the radical erotoplastics of Ellen Key.

One point at which the two versions of the story do meet is Christmas Day, 1911, during Borthwick and Wright’s first winter at Taliesin. Hounded by reporters out to confirm claims that they’re shacked up in this Wisconsin “love nest,” the couple agree to stop the denials and invite the reporters to Taliesin to hear their side of the story. In Boyle’s version, at Borthwick’s urging, Wright vows, “Let’s trumpet it to the world.” Wright reads a prepared statement, a passionate and florid defense of their union. Quoting liberally from the writings of Ellen Key, Wright lays out a philosophy of individual self-fulfillment and free love, and (in Boyle’s version), Borthwick sees him grow more magnificent with every word he speaks as he enlightens the reporters and, by extension, the masses. Horan’s Borthwick, by contrast, is wracked with doubt, realizing almost immediately that—far from converting and enlightening anyone—he’s leaping headlong into a trap, especially when he reaches the keynote of his sermon:

Laws and rules are made for the average. The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules, but that is what an honest, sincere, thinking man is compelled to do.

The reporters, who would summarily annihilate the couple in their next editions, essentially have one question: “It’s Christmas Day. Where are your children?”

In his autobiography, Wright holds forth briefly on the forces that drove him and Borthwick from their marriages with a sense of inevitability and passivity, as if his desertion of his family were a sort of civil disobedience practiced in deference to a higher law. He argues that the Great are as helpless in the face of true moral and natural law as the Average are beholden to the governance of civil law. This is very much Frank Lloyd Wright as Boyle portrays him, though The Women is no more faithful to Wright’s version of his life story (Tadashi’s footnotes occasionally highlight its contradictions) than it is to any other historical source. But in Boyle’s case, this “Don’t bother me with the facts” approach isn’t laziness or ignorance. Boyle knows the facts, such as they are, and he also knows they don’t tell the whole story. Maybe the reason that Sato Tadashi, the “biographer” who renders Boyle’s narrative, fails to portray Olgivanna, the Wright wife he knew, as richly as Miriam and Mamah, the wife and mistress he didn’t, is because he lets the facts he knows get in the way of the character he might imagine. While it may be too strong to say that Boyle is suggesting that it is the province of the novelist, not the historian, to fully exhume the past, he may indeed believe that bringing the past to life is first and foremost an act of invention rather than research and reportage.

Of course, Boyle is a novelist, so you could easily dismiss all exaltation of the novelist’s unique power to bring history to life as puffed-up self-aggrandizement, exactly the sort of arrogance-worn-on-sleeve that arguably made Frank Lloyd Wright less successful than he could have been because his condescension, callousness, and tendency to suck people dry alienated nearly everyone he met. But it’s also important to note that Boyle has told interviewers that he writes each day with his bare feet soaking in the warm blood of a chicken he slaughters each morning. Much as Boyle loves to get inside the heads of his characters, he also enjoys messing with the heads of his readers.

So whether The Women is an implicit defense of the novel's power to illuminate the past, an indictment of the exceptional who believe themselves exempt, a defense of everyone who suffered at the hands of Frank Lloyd Wright, or none of the above, it’s also a deliriously engrossing book, and if you decide you’ve already seen enough of it at the end of a 5,000-word review, you’ll be depriving yourself of a supremely diverting and rewarding read. That said, if you’re looking for insight into the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, you won’t find it here; there’s far more architecture in Loving Frank than in The Women.

It’s the tabloid life of Frank Lloyd Wright—and the way he seemed to court fame and infamy in equal measure—that takes precedent in The Women. That thirst for publicity, good or bad, is a significant part of who Wright was, much as he liked to distance himself from the preoccupations of average people. It’s at the intersection of genius and arrogance, fame and notoriety, that The Women operates. From that confluence T.C. Boyle has fashioned the finest and most enchanting work of his career, a novel so satisfyingly and imaginatively wrought that it matters little that we already know the bones of the story—and how it all turns out—not only from Wright’s many biographers, but also from two books on the same subject published almost too recently for comfort.

Boyle’s career has never been about comfort; its hallmark has always been the bold and awesome force of his imagination. True to its author’s reputation, The Women thunders toward its familiar, calamitous ending with such menacing inevitability that the immutable facts of August 15, 1914—and the mysterious spaces between them—begin to seem something that only a novelist of T.C. Boyle’s titanic gifts could possibly conceive.

Click here to pre-order The Women from Powell’s Books.

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