Review of Riven Rock by T.C. Boyle

Riven Rock by T.C. Boyle
Hardcover, 466 pages
Published by Viking
Publication date: February, 1998
ISBN: 0670878812
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg on Authors Review of Books, 3/5/1998

T.C. Boyle’s got a thing for apes and monkeys. More than one protagonist of his early stories had a tango or two with a primate of a lower order than her own, including a primatologist who fell head over heels for a chimpanzee. The apes are back in Riven Rock, but only as a subplot, part of a visiting psychiatrist’s baggage. Boyle, a prolific and inventive writer, turns his sardonic gaze to a tougher target than the tummy tickler this time around. Over the twenty or so years Boyle has been publishing fiction, he has earned a reputation as one of America’s best prose stylists. Spanning wide sweeps of the American sociological landscape, Boyle has amused his readers as he has described eccentric, zany characters both of the past and the present. From his first novel, Budding Prospects, about life on a marijuana farm, to his recent historical spoof The Road to Wellville, about the dietary regimens of a group of the very rich nearly a century ago, Boyle has demonstrated a great talent for finding the humor, both subtle and slapstick, in diverse situations. He is the king of the great detail, of the mot juste. For a writer like Boyle, sentimentality is a poison, to be avoided it all costs. Like a lot of writers of his ironic generation, however, in the middle of his career he’s discovering that he misses human emotion — “the icky stuff,” as it’s know in the profession.

Perhaps because he is so good at sculpting the surface of a story, at being damn clever and observant . . . but distant, always distant . . . stuck in the pose of pomo ironist, this time around Boyle chose a particularly difficult, pain-wrought situation as the focus of his latest novel. Like much of his other recent work, Riven Rock has a historical basis. Stanley McCormick, the heir to International Harvester founder Cyrus McCormick, is at the time of his wedding in 1904 one of the richest men in the world. His bride, Katherine Dexter, is one of the first female graduates of M.I.T., a scientific woman and a suffragist. Stanley, who at first appears to be an awkward but charming young man, wooing his wife with socialism, unfortunately turns out to be a misogynist and sexual psychopath. The Riven Rock of the title is the California estate in which Stanley is confined and treated by the best psychologists money can buy. For almost forty years, Stanley is kept away from women, including his own wife.

Boyle’s novel spans about fifty years, from the turn of the century to Stanley’s death in 1947. Boyle weaves together and follows two narrative strands: the time when Stanley was apparently still sane up until shortly after his marriage, and episodes from the life at Riven Rock afterwards. Boyle bounces back and forth from before insanity to after insanity. The book is divided into sections named after Stanley’s main attending physician during each period, “Dr. Hamilton’s Time” “Dr. Brush’s Time” and “Dr. Kempf’s Time.” Much of the comedy of the novel emerges from the different approaches each psychiatrist takes to the patient. The novel is set during a time when the field of psychology was still very new, and even its practitioners themselves were unable to agree whether or not “the talking cure” of psychoanalysis was any more useful than witch-doctoring. The only doctor who is able to make any progress with Stanley, the psychoanalyst Dr. Kempf, is sent packing. There’s no real catharsis in the story, but it becomes clear, both in Stanley’s confinement and in his wedding bed, that he’s got some major hangups of the Freudian variety.

The main point of view character in the novel is Eddie O’Kane, Stanley’s male nurse, and a philanderer with plenty of issues of his own (children by two women, avenging Italian brothers). Even though the novel is clearly not intended to be his story, O’Kane is probably the strongest character in the novel. This is both a strength and a weakness of Riven Rock — we almost always view both Stanley and Katherine from afar. We get to know them about only as well as their employees know them. When, towards the end of the novel, we are suddenly inside Stanley’s head, it is even a little bit disorienting. On the other hand, the distance between the narrative and it’s main characters is reduced as the novel progresses. The quotidian frustration of O’Kane’s life is correspondent with the lack of progress Stanley makes as his life goes on. If we readers never really get to know what’s making the deviant tycoon tick, then neither the people who live with him for years.

By the end of Riven Rock, it feels like Boyle has pulled something off in the emotion department. Katherine’s unrequited and steadfast love for her husband, O’Kane’s tenderness towards his employer, even Stanley’s groping, ever-failing attempts to be “normal” are sincerely moving. There’s more to this book than an ape caught in a revolving door and a series of gags about psychoanalysis. Author Boyle is stepping out into the icky zone of tenderness. Boyle’s been good at giving us sly sideways glances at American culture for quite some time. His ability to spot the ridiculous swimming around in the everyday is uncanny. His sparks of humor light up the page. While Boyle checks neither his sense of irony nor his flashy style at the door, he’s clearly made a departure with Riven Rock, and one that is worth his risk. Boyle will clearly never be “serious” about anything for too long, but he’s edging towards the fire in Riven Rock. Underneath all that style, he’s made a move towards substance.

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