Wednesday, June 20, 2007

the second-last book I read

Riven Rock by T.C. Boyle.

This is a new one on me, though I'd heard of T.C. Boyle before; he used to go by the name T. Coraghessan Boyle which always struck me as a bit self-consciously referencing his Irish ancestry, particularly once I discovered that he changed his middle name from the slightly more prosaic John to Coraghessan. Not sure when the (wise, in my view) change to plain old TC happened, but it must have been after this book was first published, because earlier versions of the cover pictured here have the earlier name on them.

Anyway, I've had this one hanging around for a while, but never quite got round to reading it as it's quite thick and literary-looking. But I decided that as I was going to be on holiday and, with any luck, spending quite a bit of time sitting around by the pool, I was going to need something meaty to read.

So, the story. Stanley McCormick and Katherine Dexter, both scions of wealthy and influential families, become engaged, and latterly married, in the early years of the 20th century. From the outset, though, Stanley exhibited some peculiar tendencies - influenced by his overbearing mother (his father died at an early age) and by some traumatic formative sexual experiences. A couple of years into their (unconsummated) marriage Stanley's behaviour becomes violently sexually obsessive and he is committed to solitary confinement at Riven Rock, an isolated country estate owned by the family in California, where he spends the next 20 years deprived of contact with women, and indeed pretty much anyone apart from his (male) nurses.

One of these nurses, Eddie O'Kane, provides the other focus for the narrative, and acts as a sort of mirror image, Jekyll/Hyde, ying/yang, etc. contrast with Stanley - Eddie is a serial philanderer, occasional wife-beater and alcoholic, yet (credit to Boyle's skill) remains a generally sympathetic character, and one whose failings, considerable though they are, remain within the bounds of what society deems acceptable. And this is one of the points Boyle's making, of course: the fine line between sanity and madness, or what society defines these things to be.

Stanley's doctors come and go with their differing theories on how he should be treated, Stanley's mental condition ebbs and flows; eventually he is allowed some limited contact with his wife. During this time she's become a high-profile campaigner for women's rights and birth control, and starts a lengthy legal battle to gain control of his estate (and considerable fortune).

What I didn't know when I read the book was that this is all based, quite closely, on real people. Katherine McCormick, in particular, was quite a significant figure in the development and distribution of the contraceptive pill. Not that any of this particularly matters, it's just interesting. It's (contrary to my original fears) a highly entertaining read, though Boyle's rich and verbose prose means you won't zip through it in one sitting.

4 comments:

nicola said...

Were you just in a hurry before going on hols, and went into bookshop and just browsed the Fiction section under the Letter "B"? Surely Boyle's book must have been a matter of inches away from Boyd's latest publication. You didn't even make it a quarter of the way through the Alphabet you lazy git.

electrichalibut said...

You know, that hadn't occurred to me. But, since you ask, the Boyle was bought in an Oxfam second-hand bookshop about 2 years ago, and the Boyd was bought in Waterstone's about a week ago - I was buying some OS maps and they had a 3 for 2 offer on, so I got a bonus book for free. Interesting, eh?

So, it's a complete coincidence. Next week: My Boyhood by Billy Boysenberry.

nicola said...

Have you read Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth"? Someone in this frog office is raving about it and I felt quite ignorant having never read anything by Ken Follett. Your views?

electrichalibut said...

Well, I've never read any Ken Follett, so this will be a completely uninformed opinion, not that that's going to stop me from giving it. I was also once in the same room as his wife Barbara Follett (Barbara Follett MP, in fact, although she wasn't at the time).

Anyway - my impression of Ken Follett's stuff is that it started out being a series of Frederick Forsyth-style war/espionage thrillers with taciturn heroes whose radials spit gravel and whose snub-nosed Walthers spit death, complete with stuff about financing African mercenaries by setting up holding companies in Switzerland in painstaking and interminable detail. Then he veered off into writing stuff like The Pillars Of The Earth which (I think) is more in the historical novel vein, with lots of intrigue in the Duke of Northampton's castle (or something) and probably a few bodices ripped along the way. And it's something like 1000 bleedin' pages long. I very rarely have the energy for books that long any more, not since I read volume three of The Clan Of The Cave Bear and nearly had to chew my own leg off to stay awake. But hey, it might be fantastic.