T.C. Boyle – 'After The Plague'.

 

T.C. Boyle is a modern master. 

Anyone who has been following my book and film reviews has probably, as a result, primarily formed a picture of me as a critic; embittered as a result of his own frustrated attempts to be published, etc. etc. Therefore, it comes as a great relief to be able to say that I have finally read something I really liked.

One of the things about reading is that books position you as a reader far less than films do, so you really have to move forward through a sense of curiosity and recommendation as much as anything else. I started reading After the Plague because a friend of mine had spoken highly of T.C.

I bought it at my favourite bookshop, Second Edition onGlenferrie Road. As is the case with so many of the books purchased there, it appears to be brand-new but came, as a hardback, for thirty percent of the price.

After the Plague is a collection of short stories which, I found, slowed me up a bit. This isn’t a bad thing at all; I felt that I had to go slow in order to give each the attention it demanded. And I found that my investment was significantly repaid.

If I had to describe Boyle in a nutshell, I would say that he is a literary writer who shapes up like a popular one; all his stories start out with a peculiar set-up and quickly deliver a hook to draw you in. He also writes in a very plain manner, but his prose reminds me of the footwork of a champion dancer; it’s all rhythm and precision. He has a sensational vocabulary, but never hits you over the head with it. Whenever his choice of words reaches to the obscure, the requisite trip to the dictionary always delivers a precise, vivid evocation, rather than the grudging feeling he should have gone straight for the simpler similie. 

I recently started – and put down – Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I found it turgid and mannered in an old-fashioned sort of way. The book became bogged down in its own concerns, and it felt a lot like being stopped on safari while the fusty old guide started in on a lecture about the fence posts keeping the animals in. Not so with Boyle.

The first three stories, Termination Dust, She Wasn’t Soft and Killing Babies all focus on fairly weird people. The stories create situations and then take the reader on a journey through the mental processes that drive their protagonists to act in ways that deliver bizarre and shocking dénouements. The third, Killing Babies, centres around a recently released ex-con who has been taken in by his brother, an abortion doctor, whose clinic is beset by fundamentalist Christians. The manner in which the protagonist comes against them in the climax is the result of a remarkable journey through the articulations of his unique thought and behaviour, all the more striking in relation to the superficially mundane details of his life. Boyle’s insight into people like these is literally stunning, and his explication of it through language is equally skilful.

One of the principal features of his writing is that he understands what could be described as the cornerstone of art created to entertain; ‘give them what they want, but not in the way they expect’. (This was said more eloquently by one of the ancient Greek playwrights, but I can’t remember which). He is so good at manipulating your expectations, by the time you actually do get what you expect (Rust), you didn’t dare expect it because you have been wrong every other time.

Not all the stories figure as games. Achates McNeil is replete with all the pathos and subtlety of the best character-driven literature. My favourite story in the collection, Peep Hall, not only subverts your expectations but a host of prejudices along with them.

My only criticism of After the Plague would be the last, eponymous story; it doesn’t have the dimension of the best of them, and a story like The Black and White Sisters doesn’t quite (to my mind) live up to the gimmick of its pretext. I say this respectfully, however, because I think a writer of Boyle’s stature could only reasonably be judged by an acknowledged peer.

I really loved this one. Again, T.C. Boyle is a Real Man and he has my respect. 

(I enjoyed writing that; constantly talking about how good a bloke named ‘Boyle’ is feels like a bizarre kind of wish-fulfilment!)

 

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One Response to “T.C. Boyle – 'After The Plague'.”

  1. Julie Hock Says:

    Reading this review led me to look for “the other Boyle” in the library, and as a result I am now reading “The Women” based (?) on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.

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