Friday, September 23, 2005

On the work of T. C. Boyle

T. Coraghessan Boyle is one of the most visible, prolific contemporary fiction authors publishing today. He's been at it for a while: his first book, a collection of short stories called The Descent of Man, appeared in 1979, and since then he has written sixteen others, both additional story collections and novels. He's won many awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1987 for his novel World's End and the PEN/Faulkner Association's Bernard Malamud Prize for Short Fiction for his collected stories in 1999. His 2003 novel Drop City was a finalist for the National Book Award. Evidently all this isn't enough success for him, for he has just published a seventh story collection (Tooth and Claw) and has yet another novel forthcoming, called Talk Talk, some time next year.

In recent months I have sort of inadvertently conducted my own study of Boyle's work, not all that consciously, but rather in a kind of obedience to a curious impulse to see what Boyle's literary celebrity was all about. He is certainly present in the book world, and as a minimum his frequent output is most impressive from a dedication-to-craft perspective. He obviously works hard and fast on his writing. For me that is something to respect, since I know how difficult it is for me to grind out stories or essays (let alone novels), working day after day, editing, revising, and the rest of it. But how much lay behind his work? I wondered. How deep did it go? Aside from the extensive variety of subjects Boyle pursues in novels and seemingly endless stories, was there a whole lot more to his ouvre than just output? In other words, how good IS T. C. Boyle.

The answer, I think, is complicated, and depends on numerous factors. For example, your criteria. What informs your understanding of what good books are? Their entertainment value? Their themes? Their insights? Their spiritual nature, if there is any? What you know about their authors? It depends a lot on what matters to a reader of Boyle's work. Therefore, I can only speak to my own reactions. But I think they are worth sharing, because Boyle's out there, everywhere, and on the leading edge of contemporary literature, and from a secular point of view, he's one of the drivers of modern fiction writing. He's the man. He has a large readership and he certainly makes sure people pay attention to him.

Which leads to one of my chief difficulties with Boyle, which is not even directly related to what he writes. It is his extreme self-centeredness, his arrogance, his obvious desire for attention, for fame. He's a self-appointed spokersperson for literature. Reading publicly for him is a spectacle, and he makes a show out of it, seeking to remind people of literature's most fundamental raison d'etre, to entertain. Interviews I've heard are shot through with inflated rerferences to his own success, pompous predictions of how future literature students will read and analyze his writings, and condescending remarks towards his questioners, critics, and anyone who believes in things he doesn't.

Sometimes, in reading and listening to interviews about him, and considering his statements and even some of his writings, I think of that line from one of John Cheever's most famous stories, "Goodbye, My Brother", that goes: 'Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do?' Of course, I don't have to live with the guy, so the question needs no true response. But in the sense that I as a reader recreate his interests and questions and play them out in my own head when I read his books, I take some of him into my inner life, and, thus, do have to contend with his presence to some degree.

And this is why it rankles me: the man is good. He has had success; he will be studied by future students - it is already happening. That output that I mentioned - the seventeen books - is stunning, as is the variety of characters and themes he has written about. But it goes beyond that. Leaving aside whatever his value system or beliefs are, Boyle can, and frequently does, tell a good story. He has a gift for plotting, pacing and comedy. His stories and novels are freqently hilarious, sarcastic, and witty. His vocabulary is immense, which is especially prevalent in his earlier work: in this more 'mature' phase of his career, I think he is confident enough that readers know he knows the language.

Speaking of confidence, it is without a doubt Boyle's main strength. He is sure he can write about absolutely anything, tell any story that grabs him, and so he does. Will plays a tremendous part in his bibliography, I think. He does not seem to have a rear-view mirror. Any aspiring writer must appreciate this because one of the biggest pitfalls of writing well is self-doubt. Is my story worth anything? Will anybody care what I write? What's the point? Boyle rebuffs these questions. He knows he can get you interested. He is sure he will get his book done, to his own specifications, without assistance. I certainly do respect that, and frankly, wish I had a lot more of it.

A perfect case in point is the novel I just finished of his, called Water Music. It was his very first novel, published in 1981. I absolutely loved it, I must admit: it was funny, thrilling, exciting and stimulating mentally. I think it is superior, even, than a lot of his later work, which he would certainly shrug off as my own ignorance, but there it is - my opinion. Boyle has a Ph.D. in 19th century literature, and when he began this first novel, he had only just completed his work on that rigorous academic challenge. So what did he do? He took the model of the 19th century novel, a la Dickens, Trollope, Elliot, etc. and stood it on its ear, creating a Dickensian, Rudyard Kiling-style rollicking adventure for an updated, Indiana Jones audience. The result is a hilarious romp through turn of the 18th-century England, Scotland, and Africa, an immensely satisfying read, full of exotic locations and violence, imaginative plots and sheer bravado. You can perceive the confidence it had to take to write this book when you read it. It's a long, sprawling effort and it succeeds beautifully because the young man who wrote it was absolutely sure of himself, more than willing to take a hard look at old traditions and long-sacred rules and bonk them in the nose. It's a great novel, a tremendous achievement, and I give Boyle full credit for what he did in his early career. After writing this book, he deserved to be on the map.

Nowadays, his books don't carry the same ambition nor the same full-throated Walt Whitman YAWP to them. But they are still well-written, interesting fictions, and you never know in what direction Boyle is going to turn. He can soften you with laughter only to hit you hard with violence or foreceful emotion. I suspect he feels his later work is centered on more sophisticated themes, such as man-vs.-nature (which has always been there in his fiction), a la Drop City, or human sexuality, as in his recent novel The Inner Circle, which focused on the research of Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s. I read Drop City, and enjoyed it, but it was not the same experience as Water Music or even World's End, another hugely ambitious Boyle novel, was. Yet I just recently got the chance to read the title story in Tooth and Claw, and I was impressed with the suspenseful and chilling conclusion. There's no doubt the man is still quite skilled.

To conclude, I must state a few things about what this blog at least focuses on, religion, and its relationship to literature and art. I'm not good at making erudite statements on my faith. But I do feel that my faith comes to the table when I sit down to read and write. And because I believe in vocation and God's presence in all creative acts, I feel like He must be acknowledged as part of the experience, and glorified when I do the best work that I can do. That's the ultimate source of my discomfort with T. C, Boyle, because I know he denies that God exists, and he feels, as he's said in interviews, that 'everything is voodoo', whatever the heck that even means. Boyle's lack of belief has him convinced that we have one life, one shot, and we're rotting flesh and then dirt when it's over, and this limited, aChristian view of his necessarily and fundamentally informs his work. He's confident, because he's the only one in charge of anything. He's bold, because in the end there's no real consequence to bravado and risk; we're all going to die and we're not coming back. To a Christian reader, this view of life and the world is unsatisfying to share in, and inappropriate to our task. We are here to give glory to God in our work and find ways to understand Him and one another better. We are writing, I think, to engage ourselves and others in and through the Lord God, ultimately, because we are created in the image of Him. We believe there IS more, and our stories and essays must somehow point to this. That is why T.C. Boyle's writing is in the long run unable to fully satisfy me completely, and yet I plan to continue reading him, if only to see what the world judges as good for my own knowledge, and, yes, to be entertained.

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