(buffalonews.com, Jan. 18, Mark Schechner)
Literature loves monsters. Where would “Beowulf” be without Grendel? “Paradise Lost” without Satan? Shakespeare without Iago, Macbeth or Richard III? Where would the novels of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow be without the ex-wife, that once and future Lady Macbeth of modern fiction?
Well, put down your Roth and your Bellow for tales of the all-devouring ex-wife, because T. C. Boyle has just checked in with a novel to make all the other episodes of the ex-files sound like “Little Women.” Boyle’s latest novel, “The Women,” is about four women in the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and all except the first are flaming creatures whose centrality to Wright’s life makes one wonder when he had time to design the Darwin Martin House. The Lilith among them is a Southern belle named Maude Miriam Noel, a name that sounds as glittery as Christmas tinsel, though in reality she was pure roadside bomb.
In the beginning was Catherine Lee “Kitty” Tobin, who remained with Wright long enough to bear him six children but who never enters the novel except as a flashback, possibly because her presence in Wright’s life lacked any public notoriety, except in the way it ended. It was during work on a house for an Oak Park neighbor, Edwin Cheney, in 1903 that Wright became attached to Cheney’s wife, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, and was soon on the town with her in public. Mamah (pronounced Mayma) was a feminist and the translator of a Swedish feminist Ellen Key, author of such books as “The Century of the Child,” “The Woman Movement” and “The Younger Generation.” She believed in a life of passion, and found in Wright the “soul mate” with whom she could live it. Wright and Mamah eloped to Germany in 1909 while waiting for their mutual divorces to come through.
In telling the Wright/Mamah story, Boyle has been scooped by first-time novelist Nancy Horan and her novel “Loving Frank,” which was published last year. But then we read Boyle because he is Boyle, who always takes on his own particular slalom run down the slopes of imagination.
Mamah Borthwick lived up to her belief in the free life of love and passion, even when it meant leaving spouses and children — hers and Wright’s — back on the dusty streets of Dullsville. It is after returning from Europe with Mamah to a firestorm of public scandal that Wright built his home and studio in Spring Green, Wisc., and named it Taliesin. (Taliesin is a term from Welsh mythology that means “shining bow.”) The press had its own name for it, the Wright love bungalow, and in a way it was. Designed to be a retreat, a studio and an advertisement for himself, the love bungalow became a killing floor when a disgruntled employee killed Mamah, two children and four employees and set fire to Taliesin. “LOVE BUNGALOW KILLINGS,” screamed the press. “WRIGHT AFFINITY SLAIN.” The newspapers couldn’t yet say “soul mate.” “Affinity” would have to do.
Within months, Wright found himself being courted by mail by Maude Miriam Noel, who was offering him sympathy and consolation and, not incidentally, herself, and she soon moved into Taliesin, though they did not marry until 1922, eight years later. A tempestuous diva, Miriam was given to emotional storms that were fueled by an addiction to morphine. Indeed, when we first meet her she is in a Mexican farmacia asking for morfino. Why? Un dormidero.
Boyle does not disclose how Miriam kept her habit a secret from Wright for those eight years that they were together before marriage, or whether Wright was himself complicit. But she, not Kitty Tobin, not Mamah Borthwick, not Olgivanna Lazovich Milanoff, the Montenegrin dancer whom Wright would marry in 1928, is the true subject of the novel. Even Wright himself plays a supporting role behind Miriam. Miriam occupies the stormy heart of “The Women,” and the greater the fear and loathing she arouses in Wright, the more fascination she has for Boyle. The long lurid image of her as Wright’s Mephisto is one of Boyle’s all-time character portraits.
The press was besotted with her; she was Britney and Paris and Anna Nicole Smith rolled into one and she was a magnet for headlines: “Miriam storms Taliesin; repulsed,” when she tried to force her way into Taliesin after Wright had left her for Olgivanna. “Miriam,” cried the newsmen, “a picture,” and grabbing a stick “she was poised there with the stick held high, vengeful, heroic, imbued with the power of Diana the Huntress and Queen Elizabeth and every other women who’d stood up for herself against the tyranny of men.”
And huntress she was. After Wright took up with Olgivanna, Miriam was the publicly aggrieved wife, and with the law on her side, the press in her pocket, and chemical courage in her veins, she pursued Wright with such a fury that he and Olgivanna were sometimes forced to flee Taliesin in great haste, as if pursued by bees.
“Within a day Miriam would be back on the attack. And within two months’ time they would have to run yet again, packing up so hastily the beds had to be left unmade and the clothes strewn across the floor, breakfast abandoned on the dining room table to draw flies and the garden left to the crows, the gophers and the pulsating hordes of insects with their clacking mandibles and infinite mouths.”
So, when did Wright ever have time to revolutionize architecture? He sounds like a man whose escapades and intrigues, his close calls and narrow escapes, scarcely left him a free moment to design a tarpaper shack, let alone the Robie House, the Darwin Martin House, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, or the Larkin Building. Wright must have had more spare time than Boyle lets on.
The story is brilliantly told by an observer, one Tadashi Sato, a Japanese apprentice who shows up one day at Taliesin driving a Stutz Bearcat. He remains on staff as an assistant and is witness to all the woes, the heartaches and shenanigans of his beloved Wrieto-San. If Sato’s English sounds a mite bit too good to be true, it is because he has editorial guidance from a grandson-in-law named O’Flaherty or O’Flaherty-San, who just happens to write with the smash-mouth gusto of a T. C. Boyle. The book is studded with wise-guy footnotes that are supposedly Sato/O’Flaherty’s comments on the story they are telling, but are really Boyle’s own irrepressible gift for nudging the reader in the ribs. “The Women” is Boyle’s best book in ages and certainly my favorite since “The Road to Wellville.” It even reads in places as though Boyle was releasing some deep personal grievance in his depiction of Maude Miriam Noel. And who was it that said that writing well is the best revenge?
Mark Shechner is an English professor at the University of Buffalo.