As long as New York’s circling Guggenheim Museum stands, as long as the Falling Water home spans a tumbling stream in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, as long as the Hollyhock and Ennis homes in Los Angeles invite repair and restoration, as long as Simon and Garfunkel gather for reunion concerts, Frank Lloyd Wright will be recalled as the father of architectural modernism.
During his lifetime, Wright was known for other things as well, including philandering, divorce proceedings and Mann Act charges (which, as every red-blooded American knows, involve the transportation of females across state lines for immoral purposes). T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, The Women, drafts the architectural genius as an attention-craving, exploiter of women. Boyle’s Wright is an indifferent ogre, a man who is at once caring, fickle, self-indulged and magnanimous. There are at least two sides to every story. Boyle tells Wright’s from the perspective of the women that he loved and left.
Though focused on Wright’s women, the narrative is actually told by someone from another group the architect exploited. Wright’s apprentice Tadashi, one of several young people Wright used to do everything from drafting to stable mucking, gives accounts of what he experienced and constructs the rest. “We were the acolytes, Wrieto-San was the Master. We lived to serve him,” the fictional Tadashi explains even as he considers that the tuition he pays makes his situation worse than “slave labor.”
Using the life of a notable American to present his own comic, sometimes tragically utopian views of genius in society is something Boyle has done before. The Road To Wellville explores the life of cereal salesman and health nut John Harvey Kellogg through the eye’s of one patient’s husband and Kellogg’s own son. The Inner Circle relates the story of sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey as described by his assistants. The characters, fictional or not, that surround these men define them. The women who frame Wright’s tale aren’t fictional. The extended cast, many of them real-life, includes children, day laborers, cooks, jilted husbands, reporters, neighbors and a reluctant sheriff.
Tadashi’s accounts don’t follow in chronological order. He begins with the dissolution of Wright’s most fiery liaison—the culture-climbing, morphine-addicted second wife Miriam Noel—and ends with the destruction of Taliesin, his Wisconsin retreat, and the ax murder of the women who preceded Miriam. In between, we follow a widening circle of complications that came from seduction and abandonment. Tadashi’s own temptations and punishments are used to illuminate Wright’s hypocritical personality.
Tadashi gives Boyle excuse to fictionalize the events of Wright’s life. “Did I know the man we Japanese revere as Wrieto-San?” Tadashi asks while admitting he knew only one of the wives. His task, he says, is “the re-creation of scenes the accuracy of which no one now living can affirm or deny.” But the central question Tadashi addresses is this: “Was he the wounded genius or the philanderer and sociopath, who abused the trust of practically everyone he knew, especially the women, especially them?” The answer, of course, is both.
Boyle doesn’t dwell on the genius of Wright’s work. Occasionally, one of the women recognizes the beauty of his design as when Miriam returns to the restored Taliesin and sees it “fully integrated into the whole” with its “aura of peace…everything so still and ageless.” The experience reminds her of the thrill she had first seeing the Pantheon and St. Peter’s Basilica, grand structures compared to Wright’s compound carved from the Wisconsin forest.
The writing is less slapstick, less ironic, than in some of Boyle’s previous work. It‘s more like The Inner Circle with its tense airs of duplicity than The Road To Wellville. He addresses familiar themes: the expectations and disappointments of communal life (notably Boylized in Drop City), the relationship between emotional, physical and creative desire; America’s sometimes violent resistance to anything out of the norm. Boyle’s rhythms and visual descriptions, issued in Tadashi’s voice, have their own exquisite design. Unlike Wright’s roofs, his sentences seldom leak.
As much as Wright wanted his organic architecture to become one with the landscape, he himself never quite fit in. There’s a thing—another frequent Boyle theme—that sets humans apart from nature and against one another: judgment. Wright, because of his revolving affections, found plenty of it in Wisconsin. In a sense, his story is that of all attention craving celebrities who want notice for their work but desire to keep their muddled personal lives their own business. Good luck on that.—Cabbage Rabbit