Friday, December 2, 2016

Birthday: "Writing is an obsessive-compulsive disorder."


Thomas John [Coraghessan] Boyle (1948-  )

The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with?

I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape, but I guess you want a straight answer here.

He was born in upstate New York. He changed his middle name when he was seventeen, bedeviling a generation of readers over how to pronounce it. ‘A child of the sixties, he played in a rock band and was, by his own admission, “a maniacal, crazy driver, and a punk pure and simple,” The Paris Review reported sixteen years ago. He took to writing fiction to sidestep, he has said, the abyss, and ended up a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s program (where he was a pet of John Cheever’s), and won an Iowa PhD for reading maybe a hundred three-volume novels from the nineteenth century.”

Those creds notwithstanding, he told The Paris Review interviewer, the secret of writing is simper:

Take the writers out of the classes, put them in dark cells with a plug for their monitors, a slot at the top of the door for pizza, and a slot at the bottom for waste. Every time a finished story comes back out that top slot, you write them a check for a thousand dollars. In six months, you’ll have Tolstoy.

Though he has published over a dozen novels and more than 100 short stories, collected NEA and Guggenheim fellowships and five O. Henry Awards, Boyle has missed out on the top gongs given to writers. This may be because he is so variable: he never writes the same story twice:

Two years later his first book, Descent of Man, a collection of short stories, was published. Its title story—about a man who slowly realizes he is cohabiting with a chimpanzee—appeared in this magazine.

Descent of Man was followed by ten critically acclaimed books: Water Music (1981), a picaresque, mock-Victorian novel about English explorers on the River Niger; Budding Prospects (1984), a novel about a group of enterprising “farmers” with an unusual bumper crop of marijuana; a second collection of short stories, Greasy Lake (1985); the aforementioned World’s End (1987), which describes three Dutch and American families over an arc of three hundred years; If the River Was Whiskey (1989), a third collection of short stories; East Is East (1990), about a Japanese seaman who jumps ship and tries to assimilate himself into American culture, among other places in a writer’s colony; The Road to Wellville (1993), about the inventor and health impresario John Harvey Kellogg in turn-of-the-century Battle Creek, Michigan; Without a Hero (1994), a fourth collection of stories; Tortilla Curtain (1995), about two couples in Southern California struggling with the realities of illegal immigration; and Riven Rock (1998), an historical novel about the schizophrenic breakdown of Stanley McCormick, whose father Cyrus invented the reaper. In 1998 Boyle’s short fiction was collected in T. C. Boyle Stories.

This century, he has written novels about Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women) and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (made into the movie, “Kinsey” in 2004). Talk Talk (2006) is an amazing story of a couple who find their identities stolen and set out on a cross-country search to find and punish the thief. His most recent, The Terranauts (about life in a biosphere) is, The Washington Post’s Ron Charles complained, “is like being trapped in Tupperware.”

Not to everyone’s taste, Professor Boyle, who joined the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1978 and holds the title of Distinguished Professor of English:

His prose stands far apart from the pared-down minimalist traditions of so many of his contemporaries—lush, manic, overblown, satiric, highly imaginative and, on occasion, shamelessly melodramatic. Indeed, he has been referred to as the “maximalist novelist.”

Almost as flamboyant in person as in his prose, Boyle is well-known for his readings at universities and public halls. He has given hundreds of them, including a legendary performance with Patti Smith in New York’s Central Park. He cuts a memorable figure, and is given to wearing a couple of silver ornaments in one ear. A self-caricature of both his looks and his outlook popped up in a story in The New Yorker’s 1995 summer reading issue: “A skinny man in his late forties, with bushy hair and a goatee who dressed like he was twenty-five and had a dead-black morbid outlook on life and twisted everything into a kind of joke that made you squirm.”


Boyle, who friends just call “Tom” says his favorite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though Flannery O’Connor and Robert Coover occupy his empyrean as well. He admires Charles Dickens, calling him the Mick Jagger of literature, a role no one can claim today:


Do you think it would be possible for a writer today to have the sort of success Dickens had? To be the popular entertainment of the day?


The answer is self-evident: absolutely and categorically no. We live in a cluttered culture, a culture of information in which even our computers can’t tell us what’s worth knowing and what is merely cultural scrap. In such a society, we don’t have the experience of contemplative space, of the time or mood to engage a book of poetry or even read a novel. Who can achieve the unconscious-conscious state of the reader when everything is stimulation, everything is movement and information? How can I sit down to open up an imaginative journey in words, when I might be missing something out there on the net or the tube or in the halls or clubs or restaurants?

I find it amusing that Hemingway would bitch so about the rigors of writing and the heroic struggle he endured for each book. What of writers today? We are unread, unloved, unknown. At least he could go to Cuba and ignore the whole business of book production, but we have to tramp like trained dogs through the wasteland of Midwestern malls on our book tours, begging the consumer—our fellow citizens!—to admire us, to buy us. But we are like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, performing astonishing feats for a nonexistent audience, an audience far more interested in life and vitality than in our antiquated and self-indulgent arts. And all right, maybe God had already died during Hemingway’s day, but at least the world was still alive. We have no God, no audience, and the scientists tell us with solemn glee that the whole spinning circus is headed for obliteration. Fire and ice, yes indeed.
You may have guessed, correctly, that Boyle considers the election results another way station to oblivion.

stewart house.jpg

It’s hard to imagine Boyle at 68. He has lived for a quarter century in Frank Lloyd Wright’s George C. Stewart house in Montecito, CA, raising three kids and worrying, endlessly, that wildfires will consume the place.  But if doom can hold off for a bit, he has already planned his last scenes:

At any rate, I think what will happen is that at some point—and I hope it will be a distant point—I will change my image from being a flamboyant writer, forego any middle period, and go directly to being Walt Whitman: let yellow hair grow out of my nose and ears, and be the old pundit, the insufferable old pundit who talks endlessly and tells everybody what’s what.

Until then, he keeps an active blog on his website.

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