Saturday, May 13, 2017

Riven Rock by T. C. Boyle

Soundlessly, the shabby orange creature unfolded itself from the cage, crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

Do I need to tell you that Boyle is describing an orangutan here? I don’t, do I? You can just see it, can’t you? Crouching over its bristling arms like a giant spider.

O’Kane took another step back and the two keepers exchanged a nervous glance -- the thing was nearly as big as they were, and it certainly outweighed them. And, of course, like all the rest of the hominoids, it stank like a boatload of drowned men.

And now you can smell it. A boatload of drowned men. Boyle never forgets to include the other senses in his descriptions of things.

Julius didn’t seem much interested in the oranges, but he folded them into the slot in the middle of his plastic face as if they were horse pills and shambled through the dust to where the monkeys and baboons were affixed to the doors of the cages and shrieking themselves breathless. He exchanged various fluids with them, his face drooping and impassive even as they clawed at the mesh and bared their teeth, then sat in the dirt sniffing luxuriously at his fingers and toes before lazily hoisting himself into the nearest tree like a big dangling bug, where he promptly fell asleep. Or died. It was hard to tell which -- he was so utterly inanimate and featureless, it was as if someone had tossed a wad of wet carpeting up into the crotch of the tree.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The number one reason to read and keep reading Boyle is for prose like this. Each and everyone of his books has been an absolute joy to read for this reason alone.

This one, Riven Rock, is about madness -- and a particular kind of madness at that. There are three main characters (a kind of Boyle novelty in and of itself, who seems more frequently to focus on the juxtaposition of two, not three characters). There are two people evidently taken from the pages of history…

Boyle anchors his unforgettable table with the remarkable and courageous Katherine Dexter. Her husband, Stanley McCormick, thirty-one-year-old son of the millionaire inventor of the Reaper, has become schizophrenic and a sexual maniac. Stanley is locked up in his Santa Barbara mansion and forbidden the mere sight of women -- above all, his wife. Throughout her career as a scientist and suffragette, Katherine’s faith never wavers: that, one day, one of the many psychiatrists she hires to try to cure her husband will free him of his demons.

...but there is also Eddie O’Kane, mentioned in the orangutan excerpt above, and frankly far more Katherine’s antagonist, but evidently not fit to be mentioned on the backflap of my paperback. Stanley McCormick is the madman, suffering from a sexual psychosis so extreme that he can’t be in the presence of women without attacking them…

“Mr. McCormick!” O’Kane heard himself cry out like some schoolyard monitor, and then he was on him, grabbing the taller man’s pumping shoulders, trying to peel him away from his victim like a strip of masking tape and make everything right again, and all the while the lady gasping and fighting under all the inexplicable weight and Mr. McCormick tearing at her clothes. He’d managed to partially expose himself, rip the bodice of her dress and crumple her hat like a wad of furniture stuffing by the time O’Kane was able to force his right arm up behind his back and apply some persuasive pressure to it. “This isn’t right, Mr. McCormick,” he kept saying, “you know it isn’t,” and he kept saying it, over and over, as if it were a prayer, but it had no effect. One-armed, thrashing to and fro like something hauled up out of the sea in a dripping net, Mr. McCormick kept at it, working his left hand into the lady’s most vulnerable spot, and -- this was what mortified O’Kane the most -- taking advantage of the proximity to extend the pale tether of his tongue and lick the base of her throat as if it were an ice in a cone. “Stop it!” O’Kane boomed, tightening his grip and jerking back with everything he had, and still it wasn’t enough.

...and Katherine is his adoring and faithful wife, determined with a progressive and clinical interest far ahead of her time and her gender to heal his affliction, to shape him into the thing she needs him to be…

He was inexperienced, like her, she was sure of it. And that was the beauty of the whole thing. Here he was, a big towering specimen of a male, and yet so docile and sweet, hers to lead and shape and build into something extraordinary, a father like her father. And there was no chance of that with Butler Ames [another potential suitor of Katherine’s] and the rest -- they were smirking and wise, overgrown fraternity boys who tried women on for size, like hats, and went to prostitutes with no more thought or concern than they went to the barber or the tailor. But Stanley, Stanley was malleable, unformed, innocent still -- and that was why everything depended on getting him away from his mother, that crippling combative stultifying monster of a woman who’d made him into a pet and all but emasculated him in the process. He needed to get free, that was all, and then he could grow.

...and Eddie O’Kane is Stanley’s head nurse, a man with motives other than the care and well-being of his wealthy employer, motives driven by a sexual psychosis all his own, one much more in alignment with the repressive conventions of the age.

...and he couldn’t help seeing her as she was half an hour earlier, bleeding and impotent, Mr. McCormick on top of her and her face twisted with fear, and that gave him a strange sensation. He’d rescued her and should have felt charitable and pure, should have remembered Arabella Doane [a female nurse Stanley had previously attacked], but he didn’t -- he wanted to see her nude, nude and spread out like dessert on the thin rolling mat of his berth. There was a thread of crusted blood just under the slash of her cheekbone and a blemish at the corner of her mouth, the flawless bone-white complexion tarnished and discolored, and he looked at that blemish and felt lewd and wanton, felt that way he did when Rosaleen [his wife] rolled over in bed and put her face in his beneath the curtain of her hair and just breathed on him till he awoke in the dark with a jolt of excitement. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t admirable, but there it was.

Fact is, Stanley McCormick and Edward O’Kane are two men with the same obsession, with one socialized to keep it in check on one not. What separates them, what makes Stanley and lunatic, utterly incapable of caring for himself or loving others, and O’Kane caged beast, capable of self-interest, subterfuge and empathy, is a mystery to everyone in the novel, and indeed, I believe the Boyle himself.

It was eerie. Unsettling. No matter how often O’Kane experienced it or how many patients he’d seen like this -- and he’d bathed them one after another at the Boston Lunatic Asylum, twenty at a time, hosing them down afterward like hogs in a pen -- it still affected him. How could anybody live like that? Be like that? And what did it take for the mechanism to break down, for the normal to become abnormal, for a man like Mr. McCormick, who had everything and more, to lose even the faculty of knowing it?

If I have one complaint about Boyle’s work, in fact, it’s that he often doesn’t answer the perplexing questions his fiction is structured to explore. The exploration is entertaining -- thrillingly so, as both a philosophical and rhetorical exercise -- but too often it simply fizzles at the end instead crashing in a satisfying climax.

In Riven Rock, for example, Boyle creates an elaborate and sustaining metaphor around Riven Rock itself, the California house and estate that Stanley first helps construct for Mary Virginia, a mentally-disturbed older sister, and which becomes the prison for his psychosis as well.

Stanley took up the blueprints like a man snatching a life jacket off the rail of a sinking ship. He spread them out on the table and studied them for hours, oblivious to everything, his mother, the servants, the yellow plains of Texas and the distant dusty cowboys on their distant dusty mounts. With a T square and a handful of freshly sharpened pencils, he began a detailed series of modifications, moving walls, drawing elevations where none had been provided, even sketching in shrubbery and the odd shadowy figure of Mary Virginia seated at the piano or strolling across the patio.

What did he think of the plans? That they were all wrong, that they were an insult, a product of nescient minds and ill-conceived motions. What did he think? That Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge should be dismissed for incompetence, that any fool off the street could have come up with a more practical and pleasing design and that the architects’ man in Santa Barbara had damned well better bring his drawing board along. But all he said was to his mother was, “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to suggest some changes…”

Unwittingly, it seems, Stanley is obsessed with designing and building the cloistered estate that will house his sister’s madness -- and by Boyle’s literary extension, the prison that he will come to make of his own madness.

They wound up staying nearly four months, taking rooms at the Arlington (the Potter, with its sea views, six hundred rooms and twenty-one thousand dollars’ worth of custom-made china plate, wouldn’t be completed until 1903), and in that time Stanley altered every least detail of the original plans, from the height of the doorways to the type of molding to be used in the servants’ quarters. And he altered them daily, sometimes hourly, obsessed, fixated, stuck in a perfect groove of concentration.

And it is even Stanley who comes to christen the place Riven Rock.

And then, one afternoon in the final week of their California sojourn, it came to him. He was walking over the grounds with his mother and Dr. Franceschi, the landscape expert, elaborating his feelings regarding caryatids, statuary in general and the function of fountains in a coordinated environment of the artificial and the natural, when they emerged from a rough path into a meadow strewn with oaks all canted in one direction. The trees stood silhouetted against the mountains, heavy with sun, their branches thrust out like the arms of a party of skaters simultaneously losing their balance. It was October, the season of evaporative clarity, the sky receding all the way back to the hinges of the darkness beyond. Butterflies hung palely over the tall yellow grass. Birds called from the branches.

The trees, it is explained, are a product of the region’s prevailing winds.

“What about that one over there?” Stanley said, pointing to a tree that defied the pattern, its trunk vertical and its branches as evenly spaced as the tines of a fork. It was a hundred yards off, but he could see that there was a band of rock round the base of it, a petrified collar that seemed to hold it rigid.

Dr. Franceschi wants to show him that one. It’s a local curiosity.

As they drew closer, Stanley saw that the massive slab of sandstone girding the tree was split in two, and that the tree seemed to be growing up out of the cleft. “Very curious,” Dr. Franceschi was saying, “one of those anomalies of nature -- you see, there was a time some years ago when an acorn fell from that tree there” -- pointing -- “or that one maybe, who knows, and found a pocket of sustenance atop this blasted lump of stone, and you couldn’t find a less promising environment, believe me --”

But they were there now and Stanley had his amazed hands on the rock itself, a massive thing, chest-high, big as a hearse, rough to the touch and lingeringly warm with the radiation of the sun. It was the very stuff of the earth’s bones, solid rock, impenetrable, impermeable, the symbol of everything that endures, and here it was split in two, riven like a yard of cheap cloth and by a thing so small and insidious as an acorn. …

It is Riven Rock, and it is the metaphor for Stanley’s madness that endures throughout the novel. Something small, defying identification, that, given sustenance and time, can split the solidness of the world in two. Immediately following these words in the novel is a two-page, stream-of-consciousness italicized tirade produced by Stanley’s tortured mind, not from when he was healthy, building and naming Riven Rock for his “crazy bughouse sister,” but in the relative future, when he himself has become its inmate.

I am therefore left with the impression that Stanley has built and named his own madness the same way he built and named his own madhouse. And, that once having completed it, moved into it, and lived within it for years, he eventually loses his way within its familiar walls, no longer knowing where he is or how he came to be there.

Maybe it was his domineering mother that set him on his original course, and maybe it was Katherine’s desire to shape him that affected his trajectory, attempting to re-arrange him just a sure as she took control and re-arranged things at Riven Rock.

In the past months she’s redecorated the house, removing the gloomy Spanish paintings, heavy black furniture and pottery to the attic above the garage and replacing it with seascapes and western scenes, modern chairs and sofas with square edges and low backs, draperies that gave back the light and made the place look less like a West Coast version of McLean and more like the home of an important and consummately sane man with just the slightest, most temporary indisposition. She’s hired a new head gardener, a landscape architect and half a dozen new wops and Mexicans. And though the McCormicks still owned the house and Mr. McCormick paid a monthly rental back to his mother, all decisions, no matter how trivial, went through Katherine. She was in charge. There was no doubt about it.

But, regardless, at the end of the novel, when asked about it, we find that Stanley himself has very little to say.

There was only one point at which he rose to something like coherence, and that was right at the end, when the distinguished doctors had filled their notebooks and begun to shoot glances at one another out of the corners of their eyes. The Lean Doctor said “Riven Rock” and Mr. McCormick looked up alertly.

The Lean Doctor: “Tell us about your home, if you would, Mr. McCormick, about Riven Rock -- how did it get its name?”

Mr. McCormick (sunshine at first, and then increasing clouds): “I -- well -- it’s because of a rock, you see, and I -- well, my mother, she -- and then I came and saw it and it was, well, it was --”

There was a long hiatus, all three doctors leaning forward, the day drawing down, Mart snoring lightly from the vicinity of the couch, Nurse Gleason silently dusting the plants, and then Mr. McCormick, his face finally settling on a broad winning ear-to-ear grin, at last spoke up. “It beats me,” he said.

In the end, Stanley McCormick loses himself in his madness, no longer understanding the construction that he himself oversaw. And, as much as I enjoy Boyle’s fiction, I have to also say that I felt much the same way. At the end of this entertaining story, I’m left with a similar sense of befuddlement. It all seemed important, but what did it all mean, again?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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