Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On Boyle's 'Tooth and Claw', with additional thoughts on his work....

How maddening for Christian writers and readers is the work of T. Coraghessan Boyle, who I have already posted on once before on this blog, but feel the need to comment on again? How can you avoid this guy, who is everywhere, constantly appearing in papers and magazines, cranking out new books at an inhuman pace, in possession of a nearly infinite stream of ideas for novels and stories and the will and talent to produce them? I have learned a lot about Boyle and his work in recent months, partially because he interests me, not only because of his prolific output and interesting stories and novels, but also because of his public persona, his extraordinary arrogance, his supreme confidence in his own greatness, his callous rejection of anything governing the universe beyond 'accident' and 'chance'. What I have found about him is that he's a paradox - irritating and maddening on one hand; engrossing, impressive and intelligent on the other. Whether I like it or not, this is one of the most respected writers working today, who shares the admiration of thousands of readers as well as critics and peers, and you can't very well ignore him if you want to get into his game.

For the moment, I will put aside further thoughts of a general nature on Boyle and his work in favor of some discussion of his newest book, the short story collection 'Tooth and Claw', which I have just finished hearing in unabridged audio form, read by the author. I mention that Boyle himself reads the stories because Boyle is famous for his readings of his own work, which he turns into theater, imagining himself to be a kind of modern-day Dickens. But again, it must be stated that he is very amusing and fluid when he reads his own material, and he makes it enjoyable. I give him credit for that, and for seeking to make literature an entertainment to everyone. There's nothing wrong with this, although it does feed one's overall impression that he's a guy who wants attention and craves the public's adoration without limit. He'd be the first to say this is the truth, in fact.

But, to the new book of stories. 'Tooth and Claw' is Boyle's seventh collection, amazing in itself. That's into Updike/William Trevor territory. Combine that with his ten novels and you can guage how impressive that is. However, we all know that cliche about quantity versus quality. It's an insult to Boyle to suggest that he just cranks out the quality but provides no quality, in addition to not being true. But one gets the impression sometimes that he's racing to keep pace with his own self-imposed quotas. On his web site he is constantly talking about ideas for the 'next collection' or the 'next novel' as if those are the only options he has in the future, either another novel or another collection. I find myself sometimes wondering if he should break his own pattern sometimes. But that's neither here nor there. The story ideas keep coming to this guy, and every time he puts out a new collection, there are anywhere from 15-17 new ones to add to his catalogue.

I found 'Tooth and Claw' to be somewhat of a letdown. Especially having had exposure to his earlier collections 'Without a Hero' and 'Descent of Man'. It's not that Boyle lacks ideas: each story is different from the one before, each scenario is different, and although he favors the first person-male narrator the most, he does write from the point of view of women, and he does write third-person narratives as well. One can't knock his ability to assume other voices or imagine characters who don't resemble himself. Nor can one ding him for originality: in this volume, there are stories concerning falling meteors, women who literally go the dogs, blizzards, a trek across 18th century Connecticut, extreme sleep deprivation, heroin addiction, and an African serval (form of cat). There is plenty there to retain a readers' interest.

On top of that, Boyle's language and dialogue remain as sharp as they were earlier in his career, possibly with more restraint and less haughtiness. Boyle has a gift for modern dialogue, idiom, and the like: he listens to the way people talk and replicates it in his narratives. His vocabulary is excellent, and his tone is frequently humorous, in a wise*ss kind of way, the sort of tone that is slightly grating but rarely unfunny. Yet Boyle can and does, on occasion, serve up a dollop of emotion into his stories, and the tragic, sorrowful existence that lies underneath the outer veneer of many of his characters has a way of coming through in the conclusion of certain stories, not without a punch.

The problem with these new stories, I think, lies deeper. It's in their overall effect. The way many of these stories end is unsatisfying and in some cases, I am surprised to report, even predictable or 'pat'. These stories sweep you up in them (literally, in 'Swept Away'), carry you along, but don't necessarily take you anywhere. I found this to be particularly true in the stories 'Chicxulub', 'All The Wrecks I've Crawled Out Of', and 'The Doubtfulness of Water'. In the first story mentioned there, 'Chicxulub', the final line was borderline cliche, something I felt I could have written: always a bad sign. I think the core of this problem lies in Boyle's worldview, his fatalistic outlook on our existence, his mocking denial of God's presence and or action in the world. He frequently asserts in interviews that 'we don't have God' and 'all is voodoo', so, he argues, how can our existence lead to anything, how can we do anything other than die and rot? Hence, what is the point?

Given this outlook it is easy to see why his stories lead an inquiring reader no where. His hapless characters frequently dig themselves into holes they can't get out of and then seem to wonder how they got there. In other words, Boyle's stories lack a certain depth because they don't pursue ultimate truths, in fact they deny that these things exist. Because of that, his work is ultimately unsatisfying to people such as the founders of this blog who enjoy works of art and literature that probe the deepest questions and dig into spiritual or at least philosophical or existential matters. It may be true that this is just a matter of my tastes. But I think it is still ultimately unsatisfying that many of Boyle's characters are losers who stay losers. There is a noticeable lack of redemption, hope and Grace in most of Boyle's stories, which is ironic indeed for a writer who has said that he discovered Flannery O'Connor in his early years and recognized her as a kindred spirit. How could this have been the truth, if one refuses to accept the possibility of Grace?

Another thing about T.C. Boyle that I think is worth pointing out is that to me his work seems to be declining, although this is a strong statement to make, and I caution myself that I have not read quite enough of his catalogue yet to be able to make this proclamation with assurance. Nonetheless, in my view, based on what I have read so far, his earlier books outdistance his later ones. As I indicated in my previous post on Boyle's work, 'Water Music' was one of the most imaginative and consistently engrossing novels I've read in many a moon. This was published in 1981. 'Descent of Man', Boyle's first book (1979) contained an impressive spread of diverse stories that were more expressive and zany than any of the stories in 'Tooth and Claw'. I can still remember hilarious moments from the title story of 'Descent of Man', and yet the chilling, brutal conclusion resonates in my mind at the same time. The goofy 'Heart of a Champion' which tells a PG-13 story about a randy Lassie is at least creative and funny; the hilariously titled 'Quetzalcoatl Lite' chronicles avid collectors on the hunt for an ancient Mexican beer can. One could sense the brio and the hunger in these earlier books. Whereas I recently read 'Drop City' - which critics honored with a National Book Award nomination - and found it to be impressively written and structured, well-paced, and as serviceable as any Boyle book, but less interesting and less ambitious. Yet 'World's End', Boyle's third novel, was a stunning accomplishment, a wild ride shifting effortlessly between 17th century New York, the 1940s, and the 1960s, and it obviously took a great deal of effort and drive to write. It was a deserving recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award. I think Boyle is not putting out work quite on that level these days, but in conclusion I would say that I reserve judgment for the present, and will not finalize my opinion: for Boyle's forthcoming novel, 'Talk Talk', is centered on the concept of identity theft, one of the more interesting themes that he has selected in recent years, and I want to see how that turns out before I say he can't play at the level he used to any longer.

In any case, T. Coraghessan Boyle is the standard bearer, the charlatan and the hero, the outcast and the savior of modern literature all at once in the eyes of many people. If you are interested in contemporary fiction you should read some of his books and make of him what you will. Draw your own conclusions, but understand that for most people in the literary world today, this is what represents the best we have to offer in America.

Can we do better? Can I do better? With all respect to Boyle, I am working on it.....


Duke Altum said...

This was an interesting post and a pretty good analysis of Boyle's stuff, it seems to me (although admittedly, I haven't read much of it). One thought I had while reading it is that what you're saying about Boyle's work, that it sort of leaves you hungering for more meaning due to his seeming inability to plumb deeper into the moral and spiritual issues that truly define great fiction, really should be considered a defect on his part as a writer... because I can think of many great writers who, although they may not adhere to any particular religious faith or a belief in absolute moral values, are still able to infuse their fiction with wisdom and ask deeply meaningful questions about the human condition. Take Albert Camus, who you just read recently. He was an avowed atheist and held a largely negative view of the world and of human nature, yet his fiction is still rife with relevant spiritual and moral themes, which is why it is so worth reading and still so widely read. Or Jose Saramago. Or Marquez. Or Kafka. None of these writers would even remotely have shared some of the assumptions of the founders of this blog, and yet, their fiction, their art, is right at home here, because it asks deep and serious questions about humanity and our relationship to the universe.

It seems that Boyle may be considered a leading figure of post-modern literature, which means, of a literature that displays wild talent and ambition and imagination, but that lacks the moral and spiritual underpinnings to sustain the weight of the Ultimate Questions, or even a vocabulary with which to approach them. As Dostoevsky noted, "Without God, all things are possible," but that doesn't mean they're all that interesting. Boyle seems to believe that his job is to present and analyze the quirks and foibles and ugliness of the human animal, but he does so as a scientist analyzes bacteria under the cold glare of a microscope... not with the more perceptive, more penetrative eye of a writer who is genuinely seeking after truth, because he still believes it is there to be found.

Duke Altum said...

P.S. BTW Mutt, nice confidence at the end there! I love it...