T. Coraghessan Boyle Long Fiction Analysis
T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novels concern the misconceptions that people of different sexes, races, nationalities, and backgrounds have about one another and the misunderstandings—some violent—that result. The clashes between Britons and Africans in Water Music, drug entrepreneurs and Northern California rednecks in Budding Prospects, Indians and Dutch settlers in New York in World’s End, Americans and a half-American Japanese in East Is East, privileged white Southern Californians and destitute illegal Mexican immigrants in The Tortilla Curtain, environmentalists and timber companies in A Friend of the Earth, hippies and straights in Drop City, and a deaf woman whose identity has been stolen and law-enforcement authorities in Talk Talk all allow Boyle to satirize the prejudices, eccentricities, and excesses of several cultures as well as groups within those cultures. Boyle’s ironic fiction is populated by a multitude of diverse characters, all convinced that theirs is the only possible way of perceiving and dealing with a complex, changing, often-hostile world. Boyle alternates the viewpoints of theseprotagonists to present events and issues from all possible sides and increase the irony of the situations. He writes both in a straightforward, economical style and in more ornate prose resembling that of such popular writers as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Far from being didactic, Boyle’s serious fiction entertains through masterful storytelling and through the author’s control of his vivid style.
Water Music alternates between the stories of Scottish explorer Mungo Park and London criminal Ned Rise until their destinies converge in Africa. Park (1771-1806), the first white man to see the Niger River, wrote a best-selling account of his adventures, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), led a larger expedition into the interior of Africa, and drowned in the rapids of the Niger during an attack by natives. Boyle uses the fictionalized Park and the lowborn Rise to contrast the levels of English society and attitudes toward the British Empire.
Park, a public hero, is less than heroic as imagined by Boyle. He thinks he has had unique experiences because he is unable to recognize the humanity of the Africans he encounters. He selfishly ignores Ailie, his long-suffering fiancé and later devoted wife, thinking nothing of leaving her behind for years while he strives for glory. Park is less concerned with any benefits to humankind resulting from his expeditions than with mere adventure and fame. This need leads him to distort and romanticize his experiences in his writings. The irony of these exploits is that Park would be totally lost without the assistance of such nonwhites as Johnson, born Katunga Oyo. Sold into slavery in America, Johnson learns to read, wins his freedom, becomes a highly respected valet in London, and translates Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751) into Mandingo before returning to Africa. His earthy yet sophisticated realism contrasts strongly with Park’s muddled idealism. Park’s moral blindness suggests some of the causes of the collapse of the Empire.
Ned Rise, on the other hand, is a victim in the tradition of the picaros created by Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Charles Dickens. (Dickens’s mixture of colorful characterizations, humor, and moral outrage, as well as his use of odd names, seems to be a major influence on Boyle.) Rise is stolen from his mother at birth and forced to become a beggar when old enough. He has his right hand mutilated by a cleaver, is nearly drowned, is robbed, is wrongfully imprisoned and hanged—coming back to life as he is about to be dissected—loses his true love, Fanny Brunch, is imprisoned again, and is shipped to Africa to become part of Park’s fatal expedition. Park’s Britain represents culture and privilege; Ned’s stands for the poverty and depravity at the extreme other end of the social scale. The ironically named Rise learns to survive, however.
(The entire section is 3,822 words.)