On the back cover of T.C.Boyle’s ‘The Terranauts’, fellow American novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, observes: ‘Boyle is a writer who chooses a large canvas and fills it to the edges’. That is certainly true of this, his latest literary blockbuster, which kept reminding me of one those crowded jungle canvases by Henri Rousseau. This is Boyle’s fictional take on ‘Biosphere 2’, a closed system experiment from the 1990s in Arizona. In Boyle’s novel, eight ‘Terranauts’, four single women and four single men, are chosen for Ecosphere ll, locked into a theoretically self-sustaining environment complete with lake and jungle and grasslands for two years, to see whether it is possible for a community to live apart from earth.
This is ripe material for Boyle who delights in seeing us behave as evolved (or not so) primates beneath the hypocrisy of our various civilised veneers. He has been savage with this type of thing in the past, most particularly in ‘Drop City’, for me the best of his novels I have read, where he transports a hippy community to Alaska, but he soft-pedals a bit here, probably mindful of avoiding a clichéd ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario. It is a remarkably accomplished work technically, particularly in the completeness of what it presents. However I didn’t feel the psychological penetration was quite on par with the imaginative virtuosity of the setting.
If visually I was reminded of Rousseau, in a literary vein, Boyle’s scenario most brought to mind another Frenchman, eighteenth century playwright Pierre de Marivaux, particularly ‘La Dispute’ in which four orphans, two boys and two girls, are raised in isolation and then released into an enclosed Garden of Eden to determine whether man or woman is the more faithful. Marivaux is always placing individuals in controlled artificial environments to see how they react, and Boyle’s novel, away from all the hi-tech stuff, thematically has a very eighteenth century feel, a time when many writers were examining ‘nature versus nurture’, ‘science versus faith’, in any test tube situation that might reveal to us the true nature of humankind, since long-held religious explanations as such were proving increasingly inadequate.
Boyle’s novel progresses through repeated successive monologues of three of the characters, two women and a man. The man, Ramsay Roothoorp, is the most successfully realised, possibly because the character, suave, sardonic, but with a heart, is, we assume (perhaps falsely) close to that of the author. His eventual partner, Dawn Chapman, described on the inside flap as a ‘naïve beauty’, carries the burden of the narrative; her actions determine the course of the novel. However her two crucial decisions, particularly the latter, seem to me not sufficiently grounded in her psychology; I couldn’t see why it was essential for her to do these things, so we sense the thumb of the author on the scales. The third, Linda Ryu, is the least successful, except if we’re prepared to accept she’s unpredictable and contradictory even to herself. She’s outside the dome, serving largely as a foil and plot device.
Nevertheless, these things aside, ‘The Terranauts’ is brilliant, superbly written, cleverly paced, a great read. Boyle is strongest as a satirist, and this set-up gives this talent full reign. You may not weep, but you’ll certainly laugh; Boyle sends up everything possible about late twentieth century American middle-class consumerists, all the desires and fears and foibles, self-deceptions and pretensions, it is a tour-de-force of observation and wit. And really, if we don’t quite have the depth here to match, there’s plenty of compensating enjoyments.