I Relate It to You
T.C. Boyle’s latest novel reminds the reader of joy and wonder of well-placed specificity inside a work of fiction
In an early description of — of all things — a shirt wrapped around a broken finger, a character in T.C. Boyle’s new novel The Terranauts perfectly articulates the joy and wonder of a well-placed specificity inside a work of fiction: “I relate it to you” — you being the reader, it being the bloody shirt — “because it’s one of those maybe overlooked minor details that underpin the meaning of everything that happens in our lives, from the prosaic to the tragic. And this was tragic.”
It’s neither coincidence nor laziness that accounts for Boyle’s characters’ familiarity with the craft of narrative. The Terranauts is told in three first-person accounts, each delivered (and presumably written) by a character intimately tied to the novel’s central drama: the comings and goings of an experimental biodome community in nineteen-nineties Arizona, a high-tech experiment meant to mimic a future colony for human beings away from Mother Earth.
Readers who’ve seen the cover — with its space opera-inspired imagery and Creature from the Black Lagoon-like typeface — may find themselves surprised to discover Boyle’s novel is a realist, Earth-bound one, but those familiar with Boyle’s oeuvre won’t be shocked to discover that, like many of Boyle’s previous novels, The Terranauts is rooted in strange and recent history. Unlike The Inner Circle (“the Alfred Kinsey one”) or The Women (“the Frank Lloyd Wright one”), The Terranauts’s protagonists are not historical figures, per se, though Boyle’s prefatory Author’s Note reveals the glut of sources to which he turned when creating his on-planet astronauts; and the connection to history reminds the reader yet again of a theme present in much of Boyle’s works: that truth is at least equally as strange as the invented.
“A novelized discussion of the paranoia […] à la Stephen King’s The Stand or, more fittingly, Under the Dome, but The Terranauts […] throws this format for a loop.”
One might anticipate from the set-up — eight men and women locked inside a glass structure for two years — a novelized discussion of the paranoia that comes from limited quarters and a small cast of characters, à la Stephen King’s The Stand or, more fittingly, Under the Dome, but The Terranauts braided narrative throws this format for a loop. Boyle welcomes the reader into the ecological experiment with the help of three first-person voices, but only two such voices are Terranauts themselves; the third, belonging a woman named Linda, is of a jealous scientist who didn’t make the cut for the two-year inclusion, and her voice of rejection and boredom contrasts mightily with sexual and political dramas on the other side of the wall.
I won’t spoil any surprises, except to say that there’s as much turmoil in Linda’s world as there is in the artificial, anesthetized one (as one character says, “There’s no closure on gossip”); which makes Boyle’s novel less a closed-room gimmick of narrative limitation and more an absurdist drama that never forgets the reader’s lived experience, either. As the Terranauts inside the glass compound confront jealousy, disease, and rape culture, the novel makes a delightfully old-fashioned commentary about the soul of men and women: that their tragedies can’t be avoided by changing their environment alone.
Boyle achieves all of this through pitch-perfect detail work — the kind of work to which his character pays tribute in the quote from the beginning of this review. Each detail of life inside the shut-off compound, from the acidity of avocados to the migratory patterns of sparrows, pumps blood into the voices of Boyle’s scientists.
The novel is a page-turner, and a strong one; the Stephen King comparison holds. While Boyle’s language is scientific and sophisticated, it is also first-person language that falls prey to the limits of his characters: the voices are idiomatic, at times easy, and occasionally (pardon this condescending phrase) unliterary — so matter-of-fact that Boyle’s character will never be mistaken for poets. But in a novel of this length, with this ambition, the reader does not balk when authenticity-of-voice trumps poetry.
By creating three distinct narrators — one who loves nobly, one who betrays thoughtfully, and one who covets powerlessly — Boyle has made for himself quite the juggling act, and skeptical readers ought to remind themselves of what one Boyle character says of their created world: “Just keep in mind that this was an experiment, not a perfected and finished product, and that in any experiment there are limitations and that things can go wrong, things do go wrong — that’s the whole idea.”