Beginning at the Beginning: Water Music
by John Pipkin
It may be the singular curse of writers as prolific as T.C. Boyle—who has published more than twenty novels and over a hundred short-stories during the past three decades—that each hard-won page ever teeters on the verge of disappearing into the thickness of all the many pages before and after. (And, too, in this age of e-reading ecstasy, the digital page fast succumbs to the scroll of the touchscreen: months and years of agonizing creation and revision, dispatched by efficacious finger-swipe.)
Perhaps, at first glance, it is the sheer size alone of Boyle’s literary accomplishment that is most breathtaking, and for the student contemplating a career in fiction, a survey of Boyle’s catalogue might well induce the terror and awe of the mathematical sublime (to say nothing of the inescapable anxiety that Harold Bloom would have found in play here.) But what truly makes Boyle’s literary achievement so stunning is the page-by-page presence of his writing, the unrelenting ferocity of prose that he maintains in every paragraph. Taken as a whole, his writing is expansive, a great roiling juggernaut of ideas and opinions and visions, but at the level of the sentence—sentence by sentence—there is a richness and complexity, a meticulous depth, that is as satisfying as it is demanding.
Boyle’s novels take on a wide range of subjects and settings—the Romantic Period, marijuana farming, the 17th Kellogg’s dietary reforms, immigration in California, communal experimentation in the 1970’s, Frank Lloyd Wright’s troubled romances, the modern environmental movement, and so on—but in this whirlwind of historical accounting and cultural critique, Boyle never loses sight of those things that are central to a story well told: the hard nuggets of concrete detail, the carefully constructed sentence, the primacy of compelling character.
So where to begin? How can a reader best approach so expansive a body of work. I would suggest beginning at the beginning with Boyle’s ambitious first novel, Water Music (1981), a work of historical fiction set in London and Africa in the years between 1795 and 1805. It loosely (very loosely!) follows Mungo Park’s expeditions into Africa to locate the source of the River Nile. But, of course, the novel is about much more than that, and from the beginning, Boyle lets us know that nothing is more important in this historical romp than his two main characters. Take for example, the novel’s opening paragraph:
At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj’ Ali Ibn Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar. The year was 1795. George III was dabbing the walls of Windsor Castle with his own spittle, the Notables were botching things in France, Goya was deaf, De Quincy a depraved preadolescent. George Bryan “Beau” Brummell was smoothing down his first starched collar, young Ludwig van Beethoven, beetle-browed-century Dutch settlers of New York, Dr. John Harvey and twenty-four, was wowing them in Vienna with his Piano Concerto no. 2, and Ned Rise was drinking Strip-Me-Naked with Nan Punt and Sally Sebum at the Pig & Pox Tavern in Maiden Lane.
Already on the first page, the wide-angle lens that Boyle will turn on this historical epoch is in place, and so too is the specific focus that he brings to the particulars of characterization. Notice how the paragraph begins by presenting the novel’s main historical character, Mungo Park, in the very first sentence. And note as well how the last sentence brings us Ned Rise, the main fictional character, a rascal whose picaresque story will parallel and eventually intersect Park’s own story, all the while providing a window into the dismal underbelly of late-eighteenth-century London.
There are moments of sweeping grandeur in Water Music, paragraphs where the wide-angle of an omniscient point of view pulls back to give the sweep of time and events and historical abstractions, but the prose always returns to the specificity of characters and place, such as when Mungo Park looks up at the night sky above the African continent and is astonished by the “wheeling strange colossi of misplaced constellations.”
One of the first assignments I give my SU students in creative writing each semester is to write a complete story in no more than 400 words. It is an exercise that demands a focusing of thought and language that may seem impossible at first, but students discover that if you can tell a story in a page, you can tell one in 400 pages. That may sound counter-intuitive, but, as Boyle’s writing shows, the real challenge of maintaining long-form narrative is not stretching a single idea to the thinness of a silk thread, but to write every page—even when it is merely one among the novel’s 400—with a sense of urgency, as though it were the only page. (Think of Keats telling Shelly to “fill every rift with ore.”)
In writing classes, we often talk about world-building, particularly as it applies to the creation of new kingdoms and civilizations in the science fiction and fantasy genres, but Boyle builds new worlds smack in the middle of historical geographies that we thought we already knew. He describes his vision for Water Music as resulting from a “great burgeoning out of the imagination” that allowed him to reinterpret the form of the historical novel. To this end, he prefaces his first novel with an “Apologia” in which he boldly states:
As the impetus behind Water Music is principally aesthetic rather than scholarly, I’ve made use of the historical background because of the joy and fascination I find in it, and not out of a desire to scrupulously dramatize or reconstruct events that are a matter of record. I have been deliberately anachronistic, I have invented language and terminology, I have strayed from and expanded upon my original sources.
Where historical fact proved a barrier to the exigencies of invention, I have, with full knowledge and clear conscience, reshaped it to fit my purposes. This approach to history and fiction is present in all of Boyle’s novels, a privileging of character and story and invention over fact and structure. For the academic researcher, such an assertion flies in the face of trustworthy scholarship, but for writers of fiction, this is the truth-telling vigor of literary license. So then, faced with so brazen and determined a project—nothing less than the reinvention of historical novel itself—there is surely no better place to begin exploring the vast terrain of Boyle’s work than at the beginning, with Water Music.