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Frank Lloyd Wright Annex

The Women

By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 2009

As a writer, T.C. Boyle often resembles that species of ocean-dwelling shark that must keep moving in order to stay alive. He has become justly famous for using expertly conceived metaphors and driving plots to inflict blunt force trauma on his reader, in the very best way: reading a Boyle story, like reading Flannery O’Connor, is like being shoved backwards from your chair and hitting the floor breathless. But speed is essential to Boyle’s success, and he prefers to avoid narrative inertia at all costs. His short stories—and most of them are very short, 15 pages or less—are just long enough to allow him maintain the critical velocity he requires; like a sprinter running the 100-yard dash, he makes a beeline for the plot’s denouement. But when Boyle must contend with the long unfolding narrative distance of a novel, his need for movement, for things to happen, tends to make him wander off course and into trouble. And when he encounters the slowing resistance of a thorny question—and, in particular, those thorny questions that surround the mysterious operations of the human heart—he risks the kind of paralysis that makes his language, which usually snaps with all the energy of oil in a hot pan, wilt and lose all its power.

Such is the problem that faces Boyle in his latest novel The Women, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and mistresses. He has chosen to examine Wright’s personal life, particularly his romantic relationships, an unusual departure from his usual choice of subject matter. Struggling against the enervating pull of psychological drama that the subject of love often requires, he begins to flail and expend his boundless energy unwisely. The result is a frantic book, one that sacrifices a great deal of character development, description, and ultimately, the reader’s interest, in order to keep the action happening. The reader is left not breathless from the exhilarating shock that accompanies a Boyle short story, but rather winded from sheer exhaustion.  

 
The Women is the latest in the series of Boyle’s novels that enliven a notable historical figure. That series began with the Road to Wellville, which stars John Harvey Kellogg, a the leader of the early 20th century health food movement, and continued with The Inner Circle, about Alfred C. Kinsey and his role in the birth of 20th century frankness about sex and sexuality. In those earlier books, Boyle took particular delight in examining and satirizing those men and the lengths they were willing to go to uphold their beliefs, both losing sight of ordinary principles of human morality in the pursuit of scientific progress. The Women is different from these two earlier books in that the historical figure in question, Frank Lloyd Wright, was an artist, not a scientist, and he is not the primary focus of the narrative. Instead, Martha (Mamah) Cheney, Miriam Noel, and Olga Milanoff, the three women to whom Wright becomes attached after breaking with his first wife, Catherine Wright, are Boyle’s central characters; each of The Women’s three sections is devoted to Wright’s relationship with one of these women (Catherine appears only as a minor consideration in the last section). Nor does the book’s narrative structure have a conventional relationship to time. The first section deals with Wright’s last significant relationship, his affair and marriage to Olga Milanoff, a Russian immigrant 33 years his junior; the second section concerns his fractious relationship with Miriam Noel, his second wife and a true harpy; and the third section begins with his revelation to Catherine that he is in love with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client, and ends with the violent conclusion to their affair (Wright never married Mamah; Catherine did not give him a divorce until well into his relationship with Miriam). The first 40 years of Wright’s life are left untouched, as are the last 30. Finally, like The Inner Circle, The Women is told by an outsider, a Japanese architect named Tadashi Sato who had been one of Wright’s apprentices during his marriage to Olga.

Illustration by Rachel Burgess

Cumulatively, these effects—the distance of the fictional narrator from his subject, the backwards storyline, and the focus on the three women—serve to push Wright all but out of the frame of the novel. Nor do they do much for the novel’s appeal. The reversal of events is confusing, although it is easy to see why Boyle preferred to leave Mamah’s story, with its bloody (and true) finale, for last. More fatally, Sato is affected to the point of seeming priggish: he’s a strange lens through which to examine the excesses and hypocrisy of rough-and-ready rural Wisconsin in the 1920s, where much of the novel is set. As a hyper-educated westernized Japanese man, he is the perfect vehicle for the million-dollar words for which Boyle has a weakness, like “oleaginous,” “anile” and “dehiscence.” Similar words also appear in The Road to Wellville, but there, coming from Dr. Kellogg, they are hilarious examples of the scientific drive to sterilize the repulsive and disgusting. In Sato’s mouth they are simply distracting, and no substitute for the blunt, crackling metaphors that are Boyle’s bread and butter. Here is a representative example from Sato’s account of a drunken night out with his fellow apprentices:

The specifics of that night escape me after all these years, and of course, the occasion blends memorably with so many others, but we would certainly have been convivial, quaffing beer and something stronger too…. There was the slog back in the rain, ten or twelve of us spread out across the road that was a black vein dropped down out of a blacker sky, male hijinks…and an inebriate obliviousness to the dangers of vehicular traffic (of which there was none), and yet more male hijinks…. Some one of us—I believe this was the night—made his mark by micturating into the radiator of Wrieto-San’s Cord Phaeton. There was, in addition, very likely to have been a degree of noise in the courtyard as we gallantly saw the women to their rooms.

“Micturating”? Really? This kind of language does too much and too little at once. There is a hint of Boyle’s gift for metaphor in the description of the road, but it is a very pale example of what he is capable of. It may be that Boyle has conceived of Sato as the perfect foil to the country boy that Wright was, despite his artistic veneer, and to the even rougher work that was required of anyone that lived at Taliesin, Wright’s rambling estate in eastern Wisconsin and the site of his apprenticeship program. But in practice Sato is tedious, and his memories of life at Taliesin that begin each section of the book are a trial to get through.

The story of Wright’s three great loves is certainly the stuff of exaggerated newspaper headlines and frenzied front-page copy. Indeed, as soon as it became known that he was having an affair with Mamah Cheney sometime after 1903, Wright’s personal life rarely left the newspapers. The theme of constant media attention is convenient for Boyle’s need to keep the action going, lest Wright and one of these women find themselves sitting across from each other in the sitting room of Taliesin, each dangerously close to a long introspective reverie. And so Boyle latches on to the media’s fixation with Wright and sounds the same note again and again in the stories of Mamah, Miriam, and Olga. Each in turn is hunted doggedly by reporters, photographers, and local scolds as soon as they become the object of Wright’s affection. The frenetic tone that indicates panic on every page soon results in fatigue for both the characters and the readers. For example, here is a description of the moment Wright realizes, early in the book, that Taliesin is on fire:

Smoke. Dark tongues of it, torn by the wind and flung down into the courtyard. It was as if the steam locomotive had left the station, sailed out over the countryside and lodged itself there, in his bedroom, the stoker all the while feeding coal to the glowing mouth of the furnace. But that was impossible, that was absurd, the delirium of a disconnected mind—the fireplace, it must have been the fireplace, sure it was, the flue flipped shut by a gust of wind, that was what he was thinking, and yet even as he heaved himself down the corridor, he knew there’d been no fire laid because it had been warm all day, too warm for the season, the air heavy with the coming of the storm and no reason to waste good oak that had to be sawed, split and stacked.

The rapid movement from one thought to another, the sentences littered with commas to hurry them along, the accelerating tension in the paragraph: all are appropriate for an impending sense of disaster, hysteria, or at the very least, anxiety. Now compare the following paragraph, in which Olga worries about the local community’s reaction to her affair with Wright:

But word does get out. Word travels fast, it seeps and bubbles and runs in the ditches like heavy rain in a wet country, and when she began to show, when there was no hiding it anymore and the leaves turned and dropped from the trees and the clouds moved in low to scatter sleet across the new windows and new roofs of Taliesin III, the phone rang again. They were sitting by the fire, she and Svetlana and Frank, reading aloud, and the instrument gave a long trailing bleat and then another. She looked up at him and saw his eyes retract, his jaw harden: he was thinking the same thing as she was.

Here is the same acceleration, the same tension, the same nervous energy waiting to pop. At the other end of the line is Miriam, still married to Wright when he moves Olga into his house, and her fury echoes down the remaining pages of Olga’s section of the novel. By the time Miriam dies, Olga is so tetchy and strung out that she is always on edge, waiting for the next thing to happen. The reader, on the other hand, is simply weary.

For most of the novel, Miriam appears like one of the Furies pursuing Orestes, save when she sinks into a morphine-induced haze. Even when she falls in love with Wright—a happier, gentler time, we would imagine—Boyle refuses to relax his tone. The same coil of tension, the same increase of speed, permeates the following passage that describes Miriam’s receipt of one of Wright’s early letters to her:

Miriam didn’t answer, not right away. She was going to take her time because she didn’t have to open the letter, not yet—she already knew what it would say, more or less. He would thank her in an elaborate, courtly way. Express how deeply moved he was to hear of her commiseration and how truly he wished to return the sentiment. He would be intrigued too—he had to know who she was who could know his heart so intimately. There would be all this and more: an invitation. To meet. At his studio. His home. A grand room someplace, one of his shining creations, lit softly with his exquisite lamps, the light of the hearth gathering overhead in the oiled beams, his prints and pottery emerging from the shadows to lend the perfect accents.

The fragmented sentences divide a single idea—Frank invited her to meet at his studio—into a stop-motion lurching drive forward. An invitation. Yes, yes, for what? To meet. Yes, where? At his studio. Inserting a period at each juncture is Boyle’s way of manufacturing tiny pricks of anticipation, goading the reader into following along. But at this point in the novel, after Olga’s persecution at the hands of Miriam and the press and and her final reprieve, a reprieve for the reader is also necessary. Yes, the tone was appropriate when Miriam raved at the indignity of Wright’s infidelity with Olga. But at the moment she falls in love with him? Are we really supposed to believe that this woman was constantly in a manic state? Moreover, is her mania really something the reader should endure for another fifty pages?

By the end of the first section, it becomes clear that Boyle is going to march his reader by the hand through the rest of the novel’s action—and it is all action, very little reflection—without pause. A tired child yanked along by the wrist through a down a busy sidewalk would sympathize. The bolting pace remains constant throughout the entire novel even in tender scenes such as Mamah and Wright’s stay in Berlin, both recently freed from suffocating marriages, or Miriam and Wright’s visit to Japan, away from the prying eyes of their disapproving servants and neighbors.

The largest problem with all this struggle surrounding Wright’s affairs is that we never understand the reason for all of it, since Wright himself is a shadow player at the edges of the action much of the time. Presumably there was a reason that Mamah, Miriam, and Olga were willing to go through so much privation, public shame, and persecution in order to remain with Wright. But without the context of Wright’s early work and his rise to success, the reader who is not already well versed in the corpus of material surrounding the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright will be at a loss. Nor do we see Wright at the drafting table very much during the time in which the novel takes place or get a sense of how his personality could be responsible for both great architecture and so much personal suffering. Boyle gives us almost no information about his working practice as an architect or the kind of artistic genius that would have attracted so many women to him. The descriptions of his buildings are few and far between, one of the best occurring at the beginning of the novel, when Olga sees Taliesin for the first time:

She was almost surprised when Taliesin drew into sight, the lake in front of the house capped white atop the ice, and the house itself clinging low to the ground and huddling beneath its own weight of snow and the forest of icicles depending from the eaves. It was like something the ancient Celts might have built, or the barrow men before them: mystical, out of time, as ancient as the dirt it stood upon and the stone pillars that supported it. What did she say as they wound their way up the drive? That it was beautiful, magical? Or no: that it was living art. That was what she called it: living art.

More passages like this one would have done more to explain Wright’s hold on these women. It may be that Boyle’s familiarity with Wright’s work—he lives in Wright’s first California house outside Santa Barbara and reportedly did extensive research before writing the book—allowed him to assume that Wright’s greatness was a foregone conclusion. For the uninitiated however, more information about Wright’s designs might have been a welcome digression—one of many, ideally—to slow Boyle’s mad dash through the pages of The Women.

___
Caedmon Haas is Ph.D student in Classics at Stanford living in Berkeley

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