From the salty nautical adventure to the tawdry bodice-ripper, contemporary historical novels speak as much to the superficial mores of the present as the deeper truths of the past. Yet there exists the rare novel in the genre that goes so far in mining history as to tunnel through the core of the earth and break out the other side into the present. Novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle has authored a handful of such penetrating novels. In his 1981 book Water Music, Boyle fashioned an 18th-century picaresque based on the story of Scottish explorer Mungo Park in order to home in on contemporary racial attitudes. 1993's The Road to Wellville used the saga of J.H. Kellogg, the inventor of breakfast cereal, to lampoon our health-and-fitness-crazed culture.
Riven Rock, the author's latest excavation into history's dark, unexplored corners, bears some formal resemblance to these earlier books, containing as it does Boyle's usual quota of behavioral pathology, mordant humor, and exuberant, word-drunk prose. Its emotional currents, however, run deeper than anything he's previously attempted.
Riven Rock's twisted, compelling tale centers on Stanley McCormick, a turn-of-the-century millionaire who suffers from severe sexual dysfunction; he either tries to ravish women or violently attack them. His wife, Katherine, is a suffragist who stands by her man, despite the fact that he is kept under lock and key for more than 20 years. Boyle uses this most improbable of love stories to question notions about self-control, sexuality, fidelity, and socially sanctioned morality--in short, the big issues that have preoccupied him throughout his career.
CITY PAGES:You've appropriated historical characters for your novels and stories in the past, the most recent example beingThe Road to Wellville. What intrigued you about Stanley and Katherine McCormick?
BOYLE: I've always loved history, and I use these longer novels to get my historical rocks off. With Dr. Kellogg in Wellville, I was trying to get at our obsession with eternal life, whereas what interests me with Stanley and Katherine are questions about the divisions between men and women, and the beginning of the women's movement, marriage, and sexuality. We also have monkeys thrown in there, which I love, and psychiatry, too.
CP:It's not really fashionable, given the current literary climate, to write novels with a historical sweep--works that concern themselves with broader social issues.
BOYLE:It's very unfashionable, in fact, but I'm trying to bring it back into fashion. I've noticed that some of my fellow novelists like Russell Banks and Jack Carey have just come out with historical novels. Of course, Water Musicand World's Endwere really making fun of the idea of historical novels, because usually they don't work; the historical impulse always overwhelms the aesthetic impulse. With Riven Rock, I'm more concerned with questions like, how did we get here? How did we arrive at these crazy theories of mind and body that we have today?
CP:Stanley, on some level, seems to be a victim of changing sexual attitudes at the turn of the century. As you point out in the novel, psychiatry was radically changing people's attitudes toward sex--it became something clinical that could be diagnosed, as opposed to a perfectly normal and natural impulse.
BOYLE:My point is, it ain't that easy to determine who's normal and who isn't. I mean, what is normal? Gilbert and Hamilton wrote the first sex-and-marriage manual around this time, and boy, there sure have been a lot of them since. Everyone wants to make it a science, but it's not a science. We're animals, and we relate to each other in bizarre and unpredictable ways.
I remember I was on one of these tours once and this author had written this book about how men and women should talk to each other. I mean, I know how to do that--I do it every day! It's getting to the point where no one can think for themselves anymore. Everybody's afraid to just live life and admit that it's a natural thing. No one can make any decisions anymore without an expert to tell them. I've written a lot about con men, and these experts are like con men.
CP:You trace Stanley's sexual affliction to an emotionally oppressive childhood. He's a classic Freudian case. What's your feeling about Freudian psychoanalysis given that it's so out of vogue today?
BOYLE:Well, the New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani really irked me, because it said that the book, sexually, lines up too neatly, with Stanley's affliction rooted in Freudian theory. Freud is very politically incorrect now, but guess what? The fashion of the moment doesn't always reflect what's real, and Freud's observations had a lot of validity. It's irksome that people have fixed attitudes, and they're not willing to be enlightened. I think a lot of readers of Riven Rock are confused by Katherine's love for Stanley: Because he's pathological, their love is never consummated, and he remains locked up for all those years.
People ask me why Katherine stays with Stanley. Well, it's L-O-V-E. She feels like many women feel: that if they can get him away from his mother and straighten him out, they can make him a decent man. This whole Victorian notion of, you get married and it's for life...people are afraid of that. But then what did the sexual revolution bring us? A lot of broken homes, and a lot of VD and AIDS. This is sort of a touchingly warped love story when you come right down to it. What else would I be able to write?