By William Boyd
It would be hard to think of a living novelist whose books encompass more history, more settings, more professions, more varieties of individual fate, than William Boyd — at least with anything like his assurance. Spies, photographers, climatologists, psychiatrists — in colonial Africa, prewar Vienna, the American South: You name it, and there is almost certainly something in Boyd’s prolific oeuvre that has it covered. For readers who go to fiction for the pleasures of panoramic sweep, elaborate plotting and the company of a humane, genial intelligence, he has become one of the preferred masters.
His new book, “Trio,” delivers much of the same set of literary goods, with perhaps a lighter touch than usual. It’s another period piece: summer of 1968, set mostly in Brighton (a byword for a certain English loucheness), where its three principal characters are all in one way or another connected to the bumpy production of a film bearing the ominously winsome title “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon.”
Along with the serial calamities afflicting the production itself, each of the trio is going through a crisis of his or her own. Talbot Kydd, the beleaguered producer, is in the process of coming out after a lifetime of denial. Elfrida Wing, a novelist married to the director, has taken to secret gin-tippling as a distraction from her husband’s philandering and a 10-year spell of writer’s block, while growing dangerously obsessed with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in the nearby River Ouse. At the more farcical end, Anny Viklund, the film’s American star, is trying to avoid a terrorist ex-husband recently escaped from prison in California, while conducting a steamy affair with her pop-singer co-star under the suspicious eye of her lover, a French-Algerian intellectual loosely modeled on Frantz Fanon.
Rotating through these three points of view in short, snappy chapters, the narrative rapidly generates a prodigious quantity of subplots, each adding its own pressure to the general sense of impending disaster. Will Anny’s fugitive ex drag her into his one-man war against “the American Reich”? What goes on in the padlocked room Talbot has secretly rented in Primrose Hill? What exactly is Elfrida going to do when she tracks down her husband’s latest mistress? Who is stealing film stock from the production office?
On one level it’s the kind of old-fashioned madcap burlesque in which the point is to whip up an atmosphere of liberating mayhem more or less for its own sake. But under the frenetic surface a careful patterning of events steadily reveals itself, suggesting a deeper game. Every element is doubled or shadowed in some way: aliases and pseudonyms abound; the film plot eerily echoes twists and turns in the characters’ lives; the film itself is being secretly spoofed as a porno even as it’s being shot; motifs of betrayal and suicide mirror each other across the different situations like some macabre mise en abyme; a whole system of conjectured realities — ideas for movies, titles for unwritten novels, multiple versions of the same description of a character awakening in a room — parallels the book’s actual incidents.
More than just a clever authorial performance, the structure underpins a sustained preoccupation with the tension between fate and chance, art and accident, script and improvisation. For every turn of events, the story ingeniously suggests a multitude of other outcomes that might have occurred instead. By sheer luck, two of the titular trio survive close brushes with death, and find redemption. The third doesn’t, but just as easily might have. A sense of the fluky contingency of life lingers disquietingly.
Whether that’s enough to win over anyone who isn’t already a fan, I’m not sure. With the notable exception of the terrorist ex-husband — an inspired study in morose passive-aggression — the characters are mostly familiar types: dumb-as-a-rock pop singer, Shakespeare-spouting elderly thespian, pill-popping celebrity, closeted gay guy, with joke names or one-trick verbal mannerisms for the lesser figures. And their predicaments don’t so much deepen as thicken, with repetition substituting for exploration. “All my decisions are wrong,” Anny says, as if reading from her author’s blueprint for her character. “It’s what I do.” Change, where it occurs, tends to come from some purely external agency.
An epigraph from Chekhov — “Most people live their real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy” — alerts the reader to the book’s appealing curiosity about people’s hidden selves. But Chekhov’s method, or rather his avoidance of method, seems the polar opposite of Boyd’s enthusiastic embrace of artifice and contrivance. At its most engaging, “Trio” rises to something more like the sublimely dotty comedy of P. G. Wodehouse. It revels in building opportunities for daft exchanges, the barmier the better:
“What happened to your lip, by the way?”
“I was punched in the face by a French philosopher.”
Its settings (especially the pubs) are sharply observed. Its humor and melancholy are comfortingly English, premised (like the old British sitcoms it also resembles) on the supposition of a helpless collective commitment to folly. It’s a satisfying production, entertainingly retro, like a ride in Talbot’s beloved vintage Alvis coupe, in which his eyes flick delightedly “over the dials on the dashboard with their quivering needles like a fighter pilot on a low-level mission over hostile territory.” It seems churlish to wish — though I did — that the mission had been a touch more dangerous.