The Boyleing Point
For author T. C. Boyle, history is what you make of it.
Thursday, December 10, 1998
T.C. Boyle laughs with the shock of recognition at the notion that his recently published collection of short stories might be viewed as some kind of writer''s epitaph. For an author long-enamored with the imperatives of history, there is no denying that the publication of a 700-page short story collection represents some kind of monument in the history of literature, or at a minimum, a capstone to any writer''s career.
"I see the book as definitely the end of one chapter, but is it an epitaph?" wonders Boyle, who spoke with Coast Weekly from his home near Santa Barbara. "Usually you do when you''re 80, but I do like the idea of the book as an epitaph because I do have a lot material.
"I felt like a 1,000 years old," adds Boyle in characterizing the experience of assembling the 60-plus stories for the collection. "The stories seemed so hip and contemporary to me, but now you need an encyclopedia and almanac to get the references," says Boyle of the melange of history, scholarly arcana, and pop culture references that are the hallmark of many of his short stories.
"It''s humbling because a contemporary writer doesn''t last that long. Every story is historical when written, and that''s what struck me most. Doing a selected stories, I would have eliminated some of early stuff, but the intention here was to give everything.
"As I looked at the early stories, I did no revisions or editing, although I wouldn''t be quite as crazy with adjectives," says Boyle, a somewhat remarkable confession coming from a writer who brings an acolyte''s devotion to the sublimity of language and the carefully chosen word. "I felt if you do a collection you should let it stand in the interest of diehard fans and scholars."
Few contemporary writers have been as prolific, or have navigated the narrative and stylistic challenges between the short story and novel form as elegantly, or entertainingly as Boyle, who in his 25-year career has written seven novels and approximately 70 short stories, all of which are published in the new collection except for "Quetzalcoatl Lite," a hilarious send-up of the mania for collecting that Boyle inadvertently left out of the collection.
As to an explanation for the seeming ease with which he works in both the short story and novel form, Boyle himself is at a loss to explain.
"I''m unique in this generation of American writers in that I have as much work in the short story as the novel," says Boyle. "I work well in both forms, and I have no idea what accounts for that, but I think it has to do with a long idea versus a short idea. Everything is a story for me, whether it''s two pages or 500 pages. I don''t have a down period. When I''m done with a novel, I''m storing up story ideas and launch right in."
Like a daft prospector who plunders the fringes of the past to illuminate our current obsessions, Boyle has invented a literary cosmos where the world as we know it is a mad stew of historical impulses stirred by mankind''s dual nature. It is a universe where evolution has gone awry, and the cosmic clock tolls the coming of entropy.
"History fascinates me, and half my stories have historical settings," explains Boyle. "I''m not interested in history in a traditional way, but in the way it allows me to create characters that reflect what we are today. The historical impulse [for me] is to examine something out of the past to get the juice out of it for present."
Boyle has a new collection of short stories, titled After The Plague, scheduled for publication in 2001, and is currently at work on his next novel, once again a history of sorts, about the environment and the environmental movement.
"The novel is a third-of-the-way through, and deals with the environmental movement in the life span of the main character, who was born in 1950," explains Boyle of Friend Of Earth. "Half the action occurs in 2025 in Santa Ynez. The hero is managing a private menagerie of a rock and roll star, the weather is bad, and so is the sushi."
For all of the seriousness of his themes, humor and comedy remain the essence of Boyle''s world view, a perspective that is often at odds with literary propriety and notions of literary seriousness. As far as Boyle is concerned, however, the pleasures of lampooning humankind are reward enough, and an effective way to shock readers into new insight into their world.
"I try to go beyond just satire or being clever, which is fine, but I like to take things to another level, to see if I can move the reader and catch him off guard," says Boyle. "All of my stories have an underlying serious theme, but all different sorts of humor.
"I hope to be the kind writer who writes a good story and grabs the reader by the nose," Boyle adds. "I''m always working out my own feelings on issues and ideas, but I don''t think fiction is the place for advocacy. It''s for exploration to point out the absurdity in all situations and to make fun of things I like and hate. Part of the outcry over being ''politically correct'' is that stifling, ridiculous notion of what an artist can and cannot do. "
Wherever Boyle''s career takes him in the future, the publication of t.c. boyle stories has given Boyle particular satisfaction, albeit with a gnawing sense that as a society we remain in a race against time and history.
"On the one hand, I''m extremely concerned about the collapse of the biosphere and global warming, the end of the species and civilization as we know it," says Boyle. "Sometimes I want to get out the cyanide tablets, but it''s been a privilege to have lived in this time, to say anything I want and pursue my art without anyone saying different."