T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Los Gigantes”

02/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 6, 2012.

What I like most about the author formerly known as T. C. Boyle is that he has such a strong sense of narrative: tastefully modern without the excesses of post- or experimental narrative, lightly studded with a few choice words, written so masterfully that it only sounds casual, etc.  He doesn’t have a distinct “voice,” so to speak, nor does he have a specific milieu that he’s known for writing in, and he’s equally at home in the past as in the present (very little in the future, which is fine, since his interest is primarily in people, not plot). In other words: you’re always going to get a solidly written story, and it will almost always take place somewhere surprising. In 2010, he took us both to the desert, following a commune of self-imposed mutes in “The Silence,” and later to a gated, xenophobic community in “What Separates Us From The Animals.” Perhaps the one thing that shines through all of his work is his love of nature, particularly in his latest novel, When the Killing’s Done, but on the whole, expect the unexpected: His latest follows the attempts of an unnamed South American president/dictator (who used to be a cattle rancher) to breed an army of giant warriors.

Yes, in his utterly serious approach, Boyle is giving eugenics a modest, Swiftian treatment. But rather than remaining once-removed, Boyle chooses to humanize from the outset: “At first they kept us in cages like zoo animals, but that was too depressing.” The animals parallel will grow to be a little too on the nose as it’s repeated throughout the story (the readers aren’t idiots), and the fact that the Colonel ever planned to keep the “livestock” in cages rather than houses (after all, they came voluntarily and both the men and women are paid for their services, although the women’s make only half as much, this being a country of mass inequality) is a huge misstep in the plot department, but by leading with depression, we understand that even the most well-fed man, paid well to do nothing but impregnate willing women, can be unhappy. That we are all more than our bodily functions and cannot be turned into mere machines. (I’m assuming this story takes place in the past, given the presence of fans and radios as opposed to AC and TV; this would explain why they don’t just artificially inseminate, paying the men for their sperm only.) As our first-person narrator flashes back to describe the pranks he, an extremely strong man, used to perform, we’re given an even clearer division between how jolly he used to be, and how unhappy he is now. Learning that he has a woman back home — whom he’s doing this for — only adds to the fire; even more the knowledge that she’s petite (“opposites attract,” he notes), which leads him to worry that she is perhaps in a camp of her own, the one for producing midget spies.

There’s not all that much to this story, though; the unusual circumstances not only take up much of the five pages, but they also strain credibility, especially when our hero attempts to escape and ends up chained to a table, on which he is more or less force-fed and raped. We meet only two of his fellow breeders, and only one of the women, and though its fine that we learn little about these peripheral characters, these brief relationships don’t exactly illustrate anything about the protagonist. Instead, Boyle appears to save all of his points for the conclusion, which feels unearned:

Rosa is pregnant now, incidentally, and if we’re lucky she’ll bear our first son come spring, and if we’re even luckier he’ll be neither a giant nor a dwarf, but something in between. As for me, I try to keep my head down and avoid attracting notice, but inevitably they’ll find me, I know that. How could anybody, let alone a man like me, expect to blend in in a land where the people are so very, very small.

It’s a good ending, and as I mentioned earlier, the story itself is well-written and moves at a lively enough pace, but I suspect this is where Boyle started, what he worked backward from. A good story should neither be too subtle nor too obvious, but something in between, and Boyle’s finished production, which falls on the latter end of that spectrum, never manages to blend in. I don’t regret reading this, I like the ideas presented within, but surely there could have been more done here, particularly with the Colonel quoting correlations to the Greeks, and our hero citing Samson. To put it in dramatic terms, there’s a first and second act, but it’s missing the third act in which things really take a turn; instead, we skip straight to a reminder of how small-minded people can be, and how it is often better to just be ordinary.

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