Friday, April 16, 2010
What is a man?
....What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, IV, 4
Wild Child and Other Stories by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Viking, 2010.
I didn't intend to buy this book; to the contrary, I meant to exercise self-control. I picked up T.C. Boyle's most recent collection of short stories meaning to read a few pages, a single story maybe, as I sipped my coffee. I sat down and read the first sentence of the first short story, "Balto." Here it is: "There were two kinds of truths, good truths and hurtful ones. That was what her father's attorney was telling her...." And it just keeps getting better after that.
This is T.C. Boyle's ninth collection of short stories, and he is a brilliant stylist: sardonic, funny and biting; his prose is breathtakingly beautiful. In "Balto," an alcoholic father experiences a wine-induced moment of euphoria: "He sipped the wine, chewed, looked into her unparalleled eyes and felt the sun lay a hand across his shoulders, and in a sudden blaze of apprehension he glanced up at the gull that appeared on the railing behind her and saw the way the breeze touched its feathers and the sun whitened its breast till there was nothing brighter and more perfect in the world--this creature, his fellow creature, and he was here to see it." This seeming moment of splendid union with nature is deceptive, however; in truth, the father's long, languid, liquid lunch with his mistress causes him to completely forget his two daughters waiting to pick them up after soccer practice. The story ends with a stunning moment of revelation, or maybe revenge.
Each of the stories in this collection in some way connects with a larger theme, a theme most brilliantly explored in the final, title story. "Wild Child" tells of "the wild boy of Aveyron," also known as "Victor." "Wild Child" is based on a real historical incident in 19th-century France. A feral child was discovered near the village of Saint-Sernin in southern France. He appeared to be about eleven or twelve, was wearing the tattered remnants of a shirt, had no language, and did not appear to recognize humans as having any relationship to himself. This mystifying incident is retold by T.C. Boyle; the story Boyle tells is close to the historical record, and focuses mainly on the relationship between Victor and two people who cared for him. Victor spent many years with Dr. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, whose attempts to teach Victor language were ultimately unsuccessful. Victor's other caretaker and mother-figure was Madame Guerin, a woman of peasant stock living in post-Revolutionary Paris.
The story of Victor, like the stories of other feral children, is an intriguing mystery without answers. What is it that makes us human? Is is consciousness, is it language, is it empathy? All of these qualities are seemingly absent in Victor, yet he is human. Boyle makes the feral child at once repulsive (in the course of the story he eats a rodent and a parrot) and sympathetic.
Boyle takes his epigraph for this book from Thoreau: "In Wildness is the preservation of the world." Without romanticizing the wildness of Victor, Boyle shows how the feral boy seems to draw out the corruption and selfishness of the civilized society around him. In the end, the only character who seems truly devoted to Victor is Madame Guerin, and one of the most poignant sections of the story has her searching Paris for a runaway Victor, while Itard seems relieved by Victor's absence.
The writers and philosophers of the time were asking the same questions Itard asks in this story: "Was man born a tabula rasa, unformed and without ideas, ready to be written upon by society, educable and perfectible? Or was society a corrupting influence, as Rousseau supposed, rather than the foundation of all things right and good?" Wild Child asks this sort of question in every story; in each story humans and animals are connected through bonds that are both necessary and corrupt.
In "Admiral," a wealthy couple clones their idiotic Afghan hound at a cost of $250,000, then try to replicate the original dog's entire life by hiring the same dog-sitter for the clone. Nisha, the dog-sitter, is now a college graduate and bored senseless by her duties. Nisha becomes a part of "the whole carefully constructed edifice of getting and wanting, of supply and demand..." But in stories, as in life, controlling nature is never that simple.
These stories are artfully constructed and carefully connected; when I finished the last story, I had this realization, and went back and immediately began rereading the first story in the collection. Many of the stories are about failed connections, or relationships that take a funny, mutated jump that is irreversible and doomed. In "Sin Dolor," a boy is impervious to pain, and the narrator, a doctor, tries to capitalize on the boy's genetic mutation while he despises the boy's father for doing the same. In "The Lie," the father of a healthy baby tells a hideous lie involving his child, just so he won't have to go in to the job that he loathes. And in "Thirteen Hundred Rats" an old widower's fatal loneliness is painted in vivid and disturbing detail.
T.C. Boyle dazzles the reader with the surface of his prose. In "Balto," the narrator describes the scene of an marina-side restaurant: "you could sit outside and watch the way the sun struck the masts of the ships as they rocked on the tide and the light shattered and regrouped and shattered again." Boyle does something like this with his prose: creates a brilliant, light-filled, real-looking world, shatters that world, lets the pieces regroup in the reader's mind, then shatters it again.