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Time After Time

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 being The 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 Music and World's End were 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?

CP: I don't believe many people think of you as a moralist, but you seem to have very strong ideas about the importance of loyalty.

BOYLE: My themes from the beginning have had to do with fidelity and betrayal. I have a solid core of friends that I've had since I was a boy. I've been married to the same woman since college. I've had the same publisher. Loyalty is important to me. You need something to hold on to, because what else is there? I mean, there's just animal life and we're all gonna die soon.

CP: Speaking of loyalty and betrayal, what's your feeling about the president's recent troubles?

BOYLE: I mean, I'm glad he has a penis; the other presidents before him didn't, that's for sure. On the other hand, it speaks to what I'm talking about in the book: What's integrity? We are animals, so can we really help ourselves? Given the right opportunity, I'm sure anybody is gonna have an illicit relationship. But from a moral standpoint, when you're the president, you have to bring a certain degree of integrity to the job, and you have to sacrifice certain things. It's all about control and restraint, which is another overriding issue for me. That's why I love my job. I'm free to offend everyone all the time!

CP: Do you think the story's been blown out of proportion?

BOYLE: I think we're very childish. Europeans are always amazed by our reaction to these things. It's prurient in a very puritanical way--who cares, really, what mouth the president's dick is in? It's between him and her and his wife. But it's February, and baseball hasn't started yet, and there's nothing else to think about, so this is the season for scandal.

CP: Does it bother you when you read critics who claim you're more comfortable going for broad-stroke yuks than real emotional insight?

BOYLE: It does bug me, because it's not true. Kakutani has generally liked my books over the years, but she wants me to be what she wants me to be, which is this naturalistic, realistic novelist. I have a vision of what I want to do, and it has nothing to do with what everyone else expects of me. A critic's job is not to tell the writer what they want, but to be a mediator between the writer and the audience.

CP: Most critics only seem comfortable dealing with conventional, naturalistic novels.

BOYLE: Most people are comfortable with that kind of writer because they never quite know how to respond to anything else. I think that kind of [narrow] critical thinking is bound up with identity politics. I stand utterly in opposition to that. I got a lot of shit for Tortilla Curtain, primarily from liberals who felt that I was apostate and I was politically incorrect. They don't realize they've created an oppressive religion that seeks to destroy free expression. Why shouldn't I be able to do anything I want?


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