My better two thirds and I are great admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright; we pay homage at his exquisite, visionary, leaky, drafty creations whenever we can. T.C. Boyle’s new novel, The Women, however confirms my suspicions that along with being a genius, Wright was an egotistical pain in the ass. Had I been blighted by marriage to him I may have felt the temptation to strangle him with the obi from his silken kimono before spit-roasting him slowly in a Taliesin inglenook. He courses through Boyle’s book like a river in flood, powerful,
despotic, bullish, laying waste, bankrupting; Rand’s Fountainhead made flesh. And, oddly, he is the least delineated character in the novel. Wright remains an enigma – as though Boyle himself could not quite articulate the reason behind his charisma. Wisely, he doesn’t make excuses for Wright’s behavior, simply lays bare his acts and their consequences, and pokes fun now and again at his silly outfits, his pomposity, therefore we are often baffled by him or laugh at him, but neither do we understand nor empathize.
And why Wright fell for Miriam, his second wife, is a mystery. Her purple epistilaries flagged her as an A-one nutter from the get-go, though it becomes apparent that Wright often let his trousers take the lead. Miriam overpowers the novel, she is Boyle’s greatest creation. Stoned, self-absorbed, delusional, flamboyant, she eclipses the section dedicated to the third wife, the quiet survivor Olgivanna, makes Kitty, the first wife, look like a martyred milkmaid, and beats Mamah hands down for the prize of the most newsworthy, glamorous, spit-fire mistress ever to kick a Wisconsin gate-post.
I’ve never read anything by T.C. Boyle before so I’ve no idea if this is his signature style. The Women is a big, ballsy book (I assume they’re casting the movie now), but I think if a woman had written it, it might have been dismissed as Gone with the Wind without the battle scenes and with the burning of Atlanta transposed (twice) to Taliesin (see post below about judging a book by the sex of the author). Yet I suspect Boyle is hailed as a ‘muscular’ author, which is interesting because this book has a gossipy tone with lots of lust and lamps and shopping, which I’m not sure I’d get away with, being a girl and all. I enjoyed it, I really did, Boyle has a tremendous gift for capturing the sensory details of settings and weather – I enjoyed it despite the clunky structure with the unnecessary Japanese / Irish framing device or the reverse chronology which allows him to end on the tragedy of the Taliesin murders. I assume he did this to throw light on Wright’s character, following that (dubious) philosophy that enduring an appalling event in one’s past excuses one’s appalling behavior in the future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prudish about genius. Wright’s flaws don’t deter me from coveting his perfect barrels chairs, just as Wagner’s music transports me to heaven while his anti-semitism triggers hives.
I don’t think Boyle had any idea of the powder-keg he created with Miriam, but it’s obvious he had enormous fun with her – she doesn’t quite make a frock from the curtains but she would have, had Frank allowed curtains. She needs a sequel. Bring her back from the dead, Mr. Boyle, and write “What Miriam Did Next.”