the observer Sun 08 March 2009
Frank Lloyd Wright, creator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and pioneer of "organic" buildings, is now regarded as America's greatest architect. During his lifetime, though, his notoriety as a philanderer surpassed even his fame as an artist. "Early in life," he once proclaimed, "I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose arrogance."
TC Boyle has chosen this typically self-aggrandising quote as the epigraph to The Women, his big, meandering novel about Wright's often tempestuous love life. Boyle has explored similar terrain before in both The Road to Wellville and The Inner Circle, where he fictionalised the lives of two other eccentric and obsessive American visionaries, John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the cornflake, and Alfred Kinsey, pioneer of sexual freedom. Here, though, he loses his footing, diminishing both Wright's "honest arrogance" and his achievement.
The problems start with the novel's confusing structure, which chronicles the trajectory of Wright's relationships in reverse. In the process, the drama of that extraordinary life is severely diminished. Part I is given over to Olgivanna, Wright's third and final wife, a Serbian dancer who, against the odds, provided him with some much-needed domestic stability as he entered old age. Part II concerns Maude "Miriam" Noel, his second wife, a morphine addict whose devotion to Wright mutated into destructive obsession when he rejected her within a year of their marriage. The last section relates his affair with Mamah Cheney; they eloped to Europe in 1909, both leaving behind aggrieved spouses.
The tabloid headlines that ensued threatened to destroy Wright's career but he returned to America, unrepentant, a year later, and set about building his dream home, Taliesin, in Wisconsin. Wright's life tipped from the scandalous into the tragic when Taliesin was partially destroyed in an arson attack by one of his servants, an unhinged young man who rampaged though the flames with an axe, killing seven people. The dead included Mamah and her two children.
There is much, then, in Frank Lloyd Wright's tumultuous life that almost defies fictionalisation. Nevertheless, he exerts a strange hold over novelists. He is said to have been the model for Howard Roark, the Nietzschean hero of Ayn Rand's monumentally silly Fountainhead. In 1987 Nancy Horan's novel, Loving Frank, explored similar themes to Boyle's but in a more straightforward way. Neither book cast as much light on the enigma as Many Masks, Brendan Gill's thorough biography, in which the architect is portrayed as an obsessively driven man in constant conflict with the forces of bourgeois respectability, as well as a chancer, consummate manipulator and visionary genius.
In The Women, though, that genius is taken as a given. The Wright who emerges here is vague and unsympathetic, and there are times when the casual reader might be forgiven for thinking he was a great Lothario who did a bit of architecture on the side. The high seriousness of Boyle's approach frequently tips into the realm of romantic melodrama. By far the most intriguing character here is Miriam but her emotional extremism becomes exhausting. One of the most baffling things about The Women is why Boyle, a writer not known for suffering fools gladly, seems so in thrall to her limitless self-obsession. My guess is that, had he created her, he would have had a lot more fun at her expense. That same problem dogs the book as a whole: the real existence of these characters dilutes Boyle's considerable satirical skill, impairing the caustic voice that could make his previous novels so scabrously entertaining.
Then again, this is a writer who lives in a house Frank Lloyd Wright built. Given that Wright was an artist who never celebrated complexity as an end in itself, perhaps Boyle should have studied its structure more closely before writing this confused and confusing book.