Reading

Aug. 30th, 2015 02:50 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
The Women by T.C. Boyle: Ugh. What a disappointment. I read Boyle's short fiction relatively regularly, but it occurred to me while reading this book that I haven't picked up a novel of his in years. Perhaps he is just better as a short story writer, when the exigencies of the form force him to be concise. The Women, on the other hand, is wordy: endlessly, impossibly, maddeningly wordy. Right from the beginning I was annoyed by the verbosity. There are details crammed into every nook and cranny of the story, adjectives piled on all available surfaces, descriptions draped thickly over everything. Scenes that might have been affecting or tense or beautiful at three pages, swelled and sagged over seven or ten pages. I couldn't figure out whether Boyle's style had changed since those earlier novels I read years ago, or whether the problem was that, over the past five or ten years, my own taste has been steadily evolving away from this maximalist approach.

So the wordiness of the book was off-putting, and Boyle's decisions about narration and chronology were baffling. The book tells the story of the complicated and controversial love life of brilliant architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle presents the story in reverse chronological order, beginning with Wright's third wife and moving backward through various other marriages and affairs. I can imagine a situation in which this strategy could work, but here it just seems to separate events from their consequences and prevent the work from developing much emotional depth. Not only that, but Boyle makes the bizarre decision to present the work as though it were written by a fictional apprentice of Wright's who (according to the novel!!) did not even meet Wright until long after the events he is ostensibly narrating. What purpose could this possibly serve? How does it make any sense? Why on earth not just tell the story???

I might have put this book down if not for the fact that it was loaned to me by my father (after we toured Wright's home in Oak Park together in July), and for the past few years I have not had a very good record of reading and returning his books in a timely fashion. So I forged ahead and finished it, and then got mad at it for taking up all of my reading time while I was at Stony Lake. Ha! I was quite disappointed to have this frustrating book turn out to be the only thing I managed to read while I was there, and I'm sure that didn't improve my opinion of the book.

Mostly, The Women just seemed like one long missed opportunity. There is plenty of dramatic meat in this story, but Boyle does not seem to have done the imaginative work necessary to make it compelling. Wright's wives come on stage and leave in succession, as though the same actress were going through various costume changes--each of them responds to Wright in the same predetermined set of ways and they never seem like fully-realized individuals. I wish Boyle would have dug more deeply into their characters, or even into the character of Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead of a long recitation of scenes gleaned from Wright's life history, how much more powerful might this book have been if it wrestled with the question of why Wright's life took the path it did.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I finished T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle this morning. It was a decent read, although it went on rather longer than it needed to. The subject matter was interesting, and not just for prurient reasons (although there is plenty in the book to satisfy the prurient), but also for the portrait of Kinsey. Boyle really captures his strangeness and the obsessive genius that drove him. I must say that I liked the first half of the book better than the second -- there was more humor, the plot was fun and a little bit racy, and the entire narrative was imbued with the innocence and idealism with which Kinsey began his project. It was enough to make me want to go back in time to Bloomington in the 1940s and give Kinsey my history, despite being a hopeless "low-rater," just so that I could have contributed something to such a grand and noble undertaking. As the book went on, however, all that idealism evaporated and with it went much of the energy of the book. It became a dark story of manipulation and monomania as Kinsey's obsessions became increasingly powerful and his need to control the lives of those around him became more overt.

All in all, I would say that it's a good book, but not a great one. It's certainly not Boyle's best work; both Drop City and World's End were better, although I suspect that his short stories are probably the best showcase for his talent. Anyone who's interested in Boyle is probably better off picking up If the River Was Whiskey (which includes the great story "Sorry Fugu"), and anyone who's interested in Kinsey or the Institute for Sex Research is better off just renting the movie Kinsey.

And that's it, folks. I'm off to Ireland tomorrow, and will be back in April with my attempts at travel writing.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I finished Drop City a couple days ago. It was good, although it didn't feel like a particularly substantial book to me. As usual, Boyle's writing was spot-on, which made reading the book a pleasure. It's amazing how he always manages to have exactly the right word for everything. He's also really good at dialog, and did a particularly great job of capturing the ridiculous, cosmic dippiness of the hippies' speech.

One problem that I had with the book was that there were a few story lines that just didn't seem to go anywhere. The most significant example of this problem is the whole subplot involving Lester and the other 'spades'. They were a significant source of conflict among the Drop City residents, and then tailed them up to Alaska, showed up where no one expected them, and then...disappeared! I just couldn't figure out their function in the narrative. I'm also not entirely sure how I felt about the ending. I thought the last chapter was a really beautiful way to conclude the story, but somehow I expected something more climactic to happen before the end. So it wasn't perfect, but it was still an incredibly fun read with some really engaging characters and Boyle's usual great writing.

Since finishing Drop City, I've been reading The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. I've hardly gotten started, so I can't say much about it yet, but so far I'm not crazy about Tyler's style. I also don't find the main character to be particularly sympathetic. We'll see.
decemberthirty: (Default)
Well, I decided on Drop City by T.C. Boyle. I'm now about three quarters of the way through it, and I'm definitely enjoying it. It's fun and pretty light, but the writing is very sharp. It basically seems like typical Boyle, although I'm beginning to get the feeling that things are going to turn rather dark soon, so I'm interested to see if Boyle takes it in another direction.
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