Egotists, narcissists, iconoclasts—they make for good copy. Not only are they compelling in their outsized personalities and their contagious self-made myths, they are often enough also unknowable, mercurial, beholden as they are only to themselves. The enigmatic architect Frank Lloyd Wright was both genius and huckster, holy man and asshole, an ebullient lover and abuser of everything that ever was—especially the women he loved.
It is his tumultuous romantic life that T.C. Boyle re-animates in his novel The Women (Viking, 451 pages, $24.95): Wright married three times, rebuilt a house for each new love and lost a mistress to murderous fire. But we see these romances and failures not through the women’s eyes, nor Frank Lloyd Wright’s nor even T.C. Boyle’s, but rather through the mediating narration of a fictional Japanese acolyte of Wright’s named Tadeshi Sato—filtered also by another, superfluous layer of mediation, an occasionally self-serving Japanese-English “translation” of Sato’s story. We are always doubly veiled, it would seem, from the object of affection.
All of the women (indeed, Sato himself) remain dedicated to Wright, even when—as in the case of his estranged second wife, Miriam—they become monomaniacally dedicated only to his destruction. His third wife, Olgivanna, once stunningly alive, becomes a hardened shell bent to work on his behalf. His first, Kitty, whom Wright abandoned more than once, steps forward years later to absolve him of blame in front of the press. These are the facts, not merely the fiction; this is the living material Boyle had to work with and make come alive.
Boyle is an engaging and talented storyteller, as always, and as always vivid in his characterizations. Miriam especially is an inspired creation of high-wired diva, a beautiful liar fueled on spite and need; she is perhaps Wright’s willful equal in self-contradiction and self-promotion. But Frank himself remains a mystery and frustration. Even after 451 pages of novel, it feels a little funny to even call him by his first name.
But then, the novel doesn’t offer movement or development so much as it does a constant deformation: the bending of life after life (or life before life—the novel’s structured backward) around a man who resists all empathy or understanding. Each wife, in turn, becomes a vessel for awe or petulant resentment, a desperate whirlwind of self with the cipher of Wright perennially at the eye. As in Nathalie Sarraute’s book The Golden Fruits—a storm of conflicting, anonymous reactions to a fictional novel—we forever chase fast-moving ripples on a great black pond, but never know quite what disturbed the water.
READ: T.C. Boyle reads from The Women on Thursday, Feb. 19, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm. Free.