segunda-feira, 19 de agosto de 2013
By JOANNA SCOTT
- A review on
By T. Coraghessan Boyle,
451 pp. Viking. $27.95
Frank Lloyd Wright was a visionary who produced some of the 20th century’s grandest architectural designs. He was also a reckless adventurer who got lucky. He liked to position structures over waterfalls, on steep slopes, at the bottom of arroyos. He designed a hotel that withstood a major earthquake. He designed private houses marred by leaking roofs and poor heating systems. He rewarded his clients with buildings that suited their needs. He ignored his clients’ wishes and didn’t pay his bills. He was devoted to his art. He would let nothing stand in the way of success. He was passionate and affectionate, manipulative and denigrating. By all accounts he loved — and hated — publicity.
It is, in other words, impossible to sum up Wright and his accomplishments, which is exactly what makes him so rewarding a subject. The befuddling complexity of the personality keeps writers coming back. And it’s this complexity that T. Coraghessan Boyle pursues with his own characteristic energy in his new novel, “The Women,” approaching Wright through the lens of his messy romantic relationships. Boyle doesn’t just fiddle around with familiar
biographical material. He inhabits the space of Wright’s life and times with particular boldness — an immersion enhanced, surely, by the fact that Boyle himself lives in the George C. Stewart house, one of Wright’s early California designs.
A novel that sets out to be diligently authentic in its treatment of history may deserve admiration. But it’s more impressive when a subject amply documented by historians is transformed into an independent work of the imagination, and we keep reading not because our knowledge of the past is being enhanced but because the fiction earns our attention in its own right, as a verbal adventure that uses historical material without being constrained by it. In the words of Brandan Gill, Wright’s biographer, “Even the most sympathetic feats of restoration carry the taint of an embalmment.” Though Gill is referring to the dangers of restoring buildings, his warning elucidates the challenges inherent in “The Women.” Boyle offers a reasonably accurate representation of Wright, who stands as the powerful centripetal force of the novel. Yet Boyle isn’t just a restorer. After gathering the information he’ll use to get the motor of invention running, he goes on to create an array of indelible characters — eccentrics so absorbed in the expression of their passions that they fail to notice or care when their actions turn destructive.
The most immediately influential character in “The Women” is not Wright; it is the narrator, Tadashi Sato, a (fictional) Japanese architect who has spent several years as one of Wright’s apprentices and sets out to compose a biography of his mentor. Tadashi doesn’t hide the fact that his view of Wright is limited. In an introductory passage, he explains: “I was a cog in his machine for a certain period, one of many cogs, that and nothing more.” It helps, he says, that he knew other apprentices, along with Wright’s third wife and his children. Familiarity, though, doesn’t necessarily give him access to the whole truth. At one point he asks about Wright, “But did I know him?” — a question that will resonate through the novel as Tadashi offers his own revealing yet limited account of Wright’s romantic entanglements (all of it communicated with the help of his “translator,” one Seamus O’Flaherty, who is also Tadashi’s grandson-in-law and pops up now and then in the footnotes to vie with Tadashi as a Nabokovian arbiter of the truth).
Gossip about Wright’s relationships with women ran on the front page in national newspapers. Whether he reviled the attention or found it titillating, the negative publicity certainly cost him commissions. He designed his country estate, Taliesin, in Wisconsin, as a retreat where he could live — and love — in peace. Taliesin was where he went to escape the press. It was where he gathered with his apprentices and worked for long stretches. And it was where he brought his mistresses and wives.
“The Women” wouldn’t be a T. C. Boyle novel if it weren’t full of antics generated by bursting passions. In this sense, the historical figure of Wright is a perfect model for Boyle to borrow and transform. Wright’s reputation for impetuousness seems to have made him attractive to women who played haphazardly with their own personal attachments.
The novel is divided into sections treating the major romances in Wright’s life. The women involved include Olgivanna, Wright’s last wife; Kitty, his first wife and the mother of six of his children; and Mamah, his lover, who was murdered, along with her children, by a servant at Taliesin. While the story of the massacre might be familiar to readers (it has been retold, most recently, in a novel by Nancy Horan), Boyle’s treatment of the crime is moving and dramatic. But it also seems more dutifully bound to familiar history and therefore more predictable than the rest of the novel.
The woman who really dominates this book, though, is Wright’s second wife, Maude Miriam Noel. The real Miriam inserted herself into Wright’s life in 1914 following the tragedy at Taliesin, writing him as a concerned stranger to offer consolation. In Boyle’s version, Miriam agrees to serve as Wright’s “adornment” and becomes so infatuated that she will abandon her family and devote herself entirely to Wright — loving him when he loves her and tormenting him when he rejects her.
The portrait of Miriam, while the most complex of the women in the novel, paradoxically relies most on a set of stereotypes: she’s a femme-fatale, Mommy-dearest, pet-rabbit-in-the-stewpot kind of figure. And yet, in fascinating ways, she keeps proving to be more. She seems to be straining to become what she thinks others expect her to be. In one indicative passage, she spends hours trying on outfits in preparation for meeting Wright. She takes one last glance in the mirror. “Then she straightened up and gave her daughter a fervent smile, feeling like an actress waiting in the wings for her cue, the whole dreary apartment suddenly lifted out of its gloom and irradiated with light.” It’s a bid for attraction that hints of mixed emotion — confidence compromised by desperation, joy perilously close to gloom.
Miriam is the most important counterforce to Wright in this novel, mirroring his volatile mood swings with her own even as she tries to convince him that she is the only woman he will ever need. She may rely too easily on clichéd seductions in an effort to keep Wright to herself. In Boyle’s account, though, Wright doesn’t make it easy for Miriam — or for any of his other lovers. All the women in this novel are compelled to keep changing and redefining themselves. And it’s Wright who remains the most contradictory of all, who continuously undermines his own ambitions, who falls in love with helpless finality and falls out of love with cool indifference.
Boyle doesn’t pay much attention to the concentrated effort that Wright put into his work. It may be that in pursuing Wright’s emotional life, Boyle scants his intellect and artistic genius. But that seems deliberate: love, not architecture, is the focus here.
At the end of the novel, it’s helpful to recall the narrator’s uneasiness about his limited knowledge of Wright. Surely we’ve learned about Wright — or about Boyle’s unique, fictional Wright. We’ve seen what he preferred to keep hidden. We’ve followed him as he has blundered through his most intimate predicaments. But do we really know him? Do we know these women? Tadashi has reminded us that pieces are missing from the portrait. And our lingering uncertainty is part of the pleasure this book offers. These changeable characters contain a potential for emotional shifts beyond the page. As Wright’s doomed mistress concludes late in the novel, “Feeling was all and Frank was a repository of feeling, a bank of feeling, fully invested.”
With his rollicking short fiction and with novels that include “The Road to Wellville,” “The Inner Circle” and “Drop City,” Boyle has been writing his own fascinating, unpredictable, alternately hilarious and terrifying fictional history of utopian longing in America. “The Women” adds a powerful new chapter to this continuing narrative, and it is Boyle at his best. It is a mesmerizing story of women who invest everything, at great risk, in that mysterious “bank of feeling” named Frank Lloyd Wright.
Joanna Scott’s new novel, “Follow Me,” will be published in the spring.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 18:23