When you’re in a tight spot, it’s not unreasonable to turn to the familiar folks of the past for comfort, so I turned to T.C. Boyle when I needed an airplane book quick. Oh, well, I suppose he did his best, but I wonder why he turned his considerable talents to this lugubrious subject.
Riven Rock is a cheerless tale of obsessions. A novelized account of the life of Robert Stanley McCormick, Youngest son of Cyrus, the reaper inventor, it details the descent of a dashing, eccentric, young aristocrat into a demented schizophrenic. His childhood fastidiousness and fearfulness becomes ritualistic neatness and paranoia, and his unnatural attachment to his mother transforms into a hate for and disgust with all women.
Katherine Dexter, the brilliant Boston socialite who married McCormick when she was twenty-nine, should have known better. She was a scientist, one of the first female graduates of MIT, headed for a distinguished career in a field dominated by men. As an proponent and practitioner of rational thought, she should have seen that McCormick didn’t seek her love but her thralldom. But she not only fell for him, but acted on her passion. Whenever he pulled one of his shenanigans—disappearing for days at a time in an open auto in the rain, for example—and refused to talk to her about it, or wrote or drew endless garbled nonsense, she’d buy back into the charm. So she married him. And before long Katherine, her marriage unconsummated, her husband a maniac ready to sexually attack any female he came across, her heart (but not her will) broken, had him committed.
His commitment was to a Gothic horror of a house called Riven Rock—after a boulder split by a sapling on the property—near Santa Barbara. The place had originally been built for Stanley’s similarly manic sister, but the family had since moved her to Arkansas. Walls of stone, bars of iron, twenty-four hour nursing (all males) care, and the denial of any female company whatsoever became Stanley McCormack’s lifelong lot.
And Stanley the obsessed became Katherine’s obsession. The McCormack fortune was enormous, and Katherine had plenty of money of her own, so the funds poured into the project of healing Stanley reached gigantic proportions. In addition to the nurses, the household staff, the gardeners, and the cook, Katherine hired a series of the best psychiatrists she could find. There were fits of improvement. Stanley even reached the point of being able to lunch civilly, even pleasantly with Katherine during one period, but he always returned to his violent, uncontrollable self. Still, Katherine stuck with it. Not that she didn’t develop a life of her own, immersing herself in a series of women’s causes from suffrage to birth control, but every December, at minimum, she returned to Stanley, fighting the McCormack’s who called him hopeless, always ready to try something new—injections from monkey glands, for example—in hopes of finding a cure.
And finally, there’s Eddie O’Kane, the head nurse. A big, handsome, jovial guy who took good care of McCormack most of the time, but was led astray time and again by his penchant for alcohol and women. He’s always conscious of the possibility that he’ll ruin himself with drink the way his father did, but always sure he’ll stop short of that. Hates hitting women, really does, but sometimes… , and so on.
In short, Riven Rock, puts together a pretty sad group of characters in a hopeless situation. The most admirable character in the book is Katherine, but she’s not the pivotal figure, so we don’t spend enough time with her to get a sense of anything positive or admirable at all. The psychiatrists are bumblers at best, charlatans at worst, the families are greedy vultures. O’Kane is a weak, aimless boozer and wencher, who couldn’t keep a commitment if he locked it in a safe deposit box.He invokes his Irish Catholicism the most hypocritical and inappropriate circumstances.
The book did fill up some air miles, but I trudged through it and wouldn’t advise anyone else to trudge the same path.
And then another trusted friend let me down. TC Boyle made a Riven Rock a testimony to grim fixations. Sarah Gruen, she of the superb Water For Elephants has chosen an hysterical adolescent in the body of an adult woman to carry the water for her Riding Lessons, but she can’t handle the job, and the reader stays thirsty. To complete the adolescent theme, the problems of Riding Lesson’s imaginary world are solved largely through the love and pursuit of horses. You can call it character that happens to be played out in an equestrian motif, but this is more of a juvenile romance than a real literary effort, and far beneath the talents of my Water for Elephants heroine.
Annemarie Zimmer is a cliché in word as well as action: “I am such an idot” she says at least three times. And truth be told, she is an idiot, messing up and betraying her family in so many ways through her, again, adolescent self-indulgence that this reader, at least, had lots of trouble working up any sympathy at all for her. I thank Gruen for distracting couple of hours on a long flight, but as for a high quality literary experience? Not this one.
Anchee Min has been around for a while, but I didn’t run across her till just now. Katherine was published in 1995, and seems to have been Min’s first novel after having received wide acclaim for her memoir Red Azalea, about her life in China of the cultural revolution, during which her acting talent and the attentions of actress Joyce Chen bought her a ticket to America. Katherine gives us a taste of both worlds Min has become familiar with. Our narrator (first person) is a hard-life Chinese woman of twenty-nine who has struggled her way out of a reeducation camp to a small apartment in the Shanghai slums where she lives with her mother, father, and brother (age thirty-four).
She volunteers to learn English so her factory boss can have someone to translate his manuals. This buys her a few days a week in class where she won’t have to endlessly fashion switch plate covers. “Katherine” is the American teacher, and of course everyone’s life will never be the same.
There’s a lot that’s typical about this story of the naïve, well-intentioned American blustering and bumbling her way through a culture she doesn’t understand, try though she may. However, none of it feels cliché because the characters are so believable, and their relationships make such emotional sense even when they are unpredictable. Near the end, the heartwarming, though difficult comedy of Katherine-as-misfit turns disastrous, even deadly.
After that, matters get solved a little too simply quickly for my tastes. But that doesn’t spoil the book entirely. Sociologically, it’s a good lesson in how we look—positive and negative—to some people from another culture. I’ve spent only a little time in China, known some Chinese here in this country, and the conflicts and enjoyments and misperceptions all ring true. If I’m not mistaken, Min has another book just out. I want it.