When the artist formerly known as T. Coraghessan Boyle burst onto the national literary scene some 30 years ago, readers knew immediately that an immensely smart, versatile and entertaining new writer was staking his claim to some of the territory held by such reader-friendly wizards of narrative and rhetoric as Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme.
To put it another way, Susan Sontag’s sonorous declamations about the cultural legitimacy of “camp” found a lively correlative in the stories of Boyle’s first collection Descent of Man (1979)—six more have followed. Who could resist crisp, in-your-face tales about the wretched excesses of pillaging Norsemen, or the spectacle of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin disporting himself at a Dadaist arts festival? Then, before we’d all stopped chuckling, Boyle produced his richly imagined and detailed debut novel Water Music (1981), in which historical Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s African exploits became the vehicle for vivid observations and riffs on the nature of intellectual adventuring, heroism and arduously acquired self-knowledge.
Boyle’s subsequent novels have ranged from visions of fear and loathing in California’s drug culture to the perils of the Internet—and commanded especially high visibility when reinterpreting well-known American success-and-failure stories, notably in deft fictionalizations of the complicated lives of cereal-king health faddist John Harvey Kellogg (The Road to Wellville, 1993) and innovative sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle, 2004).
The Women, Boyle’s 12th novel, tackles another flawed American icon: the great architect and world-class egomaniac Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), whose unique accomplishments were repeatedly compromised because—as this novel’s narrator informs us—“throughout his life, especially in times of duress, [Wright] sought the company of women.” That narrator—Japanese architectural student Sato Tadashi, who becomes one of numerous “acolytes” laboring unpaid at Wright’s huge Wisconsin estate Taliesin—tells, in reverse order, the stories of Wright’s four great loves: the Montenegrin beauty (Olgivanna) who succeeds his fiery Southern mistress Maude Miriam Noel (a madder, more vituperative Zelda Fitzgerald), Wright’s soul mate Mamah Cheney (whom he appropriates from her husband and children) and first wife Kitty, displaced by Mamah (who, like the doomed edifice of Taliesin, seems chosen to pay for the adulterous genius’s sins).
All of Boyle’s colorful skills are fully engaged in his latest (as, to be fair, are his tendencies toward redundancy and overemphasis). It’s a performance worthy of the writer who has, in interviews and on his informative website, acknowledged the influences of Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh and Gabriel García Márquez. I’d argue that Dickens and Shakespeare also must loom prominently in the imagination of a writer so adept at the creation of improbably beguiling comic grotesques. And Boyle’s warmhearted, coldly calculating, ineffably seductive and unknowable Frank Lloyd Wright may be the most beguiling of them all.