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Archive for February, 2010

Wright and the women

 

The Women, a novel by T.C. Boyle is an attempt by the author to evoke the character, life and personality of Frank Lloyd Wright through a study of his romantic relationships. Each of the women, and occasionally Wright himself, is given a voice as Boyle works backward in time from the meeting and development of Wright’s relationship with his third and last wife, Oligivanna; through the turbulence of the reign of his second wife and onetime mistress, Miriam; and finally, overlapping the eras of his first wife Kitty and mistress Mamah (pronounced may-ma).  This reverse chronology allows Boyle to build suspense to the horrific fire and gruesome murders that occur near the end of the book, and the different narratives fill in the architect’s character from varying angles until we have what feels like a pretty accurate picture of Wright.  An additional narrative layer bracketing and interspersed with that of the women is provided by the memoir of a Japanese architect who as a young student was so inspired by Wright’s Imperial Hotel, built in Tokyo in 1923, that he left his studies to apprentice with Wright at Taliesin.  His story is told to his Irish son-in-law who acts as his amanuensis, although frequent footnotes contradict some of what is written, further distancing the reader. Caught up in these many viewpoints, mostly that of one or another of the women, we absorb on a different level many key facets of the architect’s character:  his love of hearth and home (repeatedly broken up as it was by his own ungoverned passions), his personal magnetism, scorn for rules, appetite for work, and larger-than-life nature.  In addition, through these three or four degrees of separation, the reader, like the young Japanese fellow who arrives all unwitting and idealistic into Wright’s household, where he ends ups working more in the kitchen than at the drafting table, is drawn into the story, dropping that natural suspicion that arises when someone tries to tell the “truth” about another time and place.  Thus, Boyle’s method, I think, largely succeeds. Boyle himself lives in a Wright-built house in California, which one imagines must have fueled his interest in the story he sets out to tell. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo stands in for Wright’s genius, its story underlying the novel, and what we learn of its beauty and ingenious construction is almost as compelling as Wright’s fraught personal life. It is a thrilling moment when after the worst earthquake (8.3 on the Richter scale) in Tokyo’s history devastates the city, Wright receives a telegram, after an agony of waiting, that his building is still standing.

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Some thoughts on memoirs

The problem with the memoir as an art form is that the reader can have trouble tolerating the echo-chamber of the narrator’s head.  The convention of the unreliable narrator in fiction serves to open up space between what is said and what the reader can trust or believe.  But with a memoir we are often subject to an unrelenting barrage of the writer’s self-justifications and an insistence that the version told must be accepted as the Truth.  There is no space there for reflection or interpretation.  Books like The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr or Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs may fascinate and horrify with their sad and bizarre childhood memories, but after awhile one wonders what the point is.  It may be a form of therapy for the author, but it doesn’t make it Art and it doesn’t mean I have to read it.   My reaction to these books is:  get a therapist or start a blog, and I wonder what the publishers and editors (if there are any out there) are thinking.  That said, I recently read Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the memoir of a Somalian woman who escaped an arranged marriage to rise to political power in Holland.  While the story is more compelling than most due to the charged religious and political subject matter,  it still barely clears the shoals of petty self-regard that inflict these types of books, and in the end dwindles into a repetitive polemic against Islam.  Perhaps it would have been better to have ended the book when she got on the train to Amsterdam, seeking asylum as a refugee, and taking the first brave step toward a new life. For she is brave and intelligent, qualities that do come through in her writing. It’s just that the story of her life speaks for itself, it does not need to be enclosed in her new ideas about freedom and religion, crudely spelled out and hammered home; it does not need the added layer of her struggles in Holland, where she seems to go through homes, jobs, friendships and countries at a rapid rate – that would have made a fine postscript and the rest could have been a magazine article. I guess it seemed logical to frame the narrative with the murder of Theo Van Gogh, but, again, the time in Holland dilutes what came before, the more passionately written and deeply-felt story of her coming of age and her growth as an individual.   I do wish Hirsi Ali the best in her new life, and better editors and advisors to help her with her next work.

I tend to avoid biographies since they often share more detail about a person that I might care to know; they are often huge and exhausting.  The only memoirs that I typically enjoy are travel narratives, because the purpose is clearly stated, there is always something happening, and the writer is revealed through their actions not statements–often, this does not show the best side of a person, but that is the danger of the memoir – and the blog, I suppose – one stands to be fully revealed. I do enjoy Paul Theroux’ travel writing, for instance, but sometimes he comes across as cruel to the people he meets who do not know that they will be skewered in his next book, and the reader can feel a bit bad about enjoying such scenes. On the other hand, Darwin, in The Voyage of the Beagle, comes across as a good-natured, kind and thoughtful person, and an excellent travelling companion.

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