Water Music

( 4 )

Overview

Twenty five years ago, T.C. Boyle published his first novel, Water Music—a funny, bawdy, extremely entertaining novel of imaginative and stylistic fancy that announced to the world Boyle's tremendous gifts as a storyteller. Set in the late eighteenth century, Water Music follows the wild adventures of Ned Rise, thief and whoremaster, and Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, through London's seamy gutters and Scotland's scenic highlands—to their grand meeting in the heart of darkest Africa. There they join forces and ...

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Overview

Twenty five years ago, T.C. Boyle published his first novel, Water Music—a funny, bawdy, extremely entertaining novel of imaginative and stylistic fancy that announced to the world Boyle's tremendous gifts as a storyteller. Set in the late eighteenth century, Water Music follows the wild adventures of Ned Rise, thief and whoremaster, and Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, through London's seamy gutters and Scotland's scenic highlands—to their grand meeting in the heart of darkest Africa. There they join forces and wend their hilarious way to the source of the Niger.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ribald, hilarious, exotic—an engrossing flight of the literary imagination." —Los Angeles Times

"Water Music does for fiction what Raiders of the Lost Ark did for film. . . . Boyle is an adept plotter, a crazed humorist, and a fierce describer." —The Boston Globe

"High comic fiction . . . Boyle is a writer of considerable talent. He pulls off his most implausible inventions with wit, a perfect sense of timing, and his considerable linguistic gifts." —The Washington Post

Alan Friedman
''Water Music'' by T. Coraghessan Boyle is set in the decade between 1795 and 1805, it very deliberately goes about mimicking and mocking the novels of both the 18th and 19th centuries....The style of the new book is a freewheeling mixture of elegant polysyllabic rhetoric (''porcipophagic,'' ''testudineous'') with current colloquialismsThese two forms of discourse, the rhetorical and the chatty, occur in both high plot and low plot, and they occur together: ''So long, mortal coil''; ''Orestes couldn't have had it worse''; ''But hey, this is Africa, man. The eye of the needle, mother of mystery, heart of darkness.'' Humor? I'm not so sure....The intention of such writing is, I think, not precisely humor; its intention is to limn the characters of another century with the most colorless expressions of our own in order to make them recognizable, to make them look and feel like ourselves.... ''Water Music,'' while self-consciously honoring certain codes and manners of the past, goes out of its way to keep us aware that we are reading a work of our own times. -- New York Times
Library Journal
This 1981 novel was Boyle's first and he started off with a bang. Boyle said that the purpose of this title was "to reinterpret the notion of the historical novel from the point of view of a 20th-century wiseguy." With his signature bawdy humor, Boyle presents 18th-century adventurers Ned Rise and Mungo Park, who join forces to make their way to the source of Africa's Niger River. This 25th-anniversary edition sports a new intro by James R. Kincaid. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140065503
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/1983
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 265,351
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.77 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

T. Coraghessan Boyle

T. C. Boyle is the author of eleven novels, including World's End (winner of the PEN/FaulknerAward), Drop City (a New York Times bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award), and The Inner Circle. His most recent story collections are Tooth and Claw and The Human Fly and Other Stories.

James R. Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University of Southern California, is a widely recognized authority on Victorian literature and culture.

Biography

In the interest of time and space, it might be easier to note the writers that T. C. Boyle isn't compared to. But let's give the reverse a try: Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Evelyn Waugh, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Kingsley Amis, Thomas Berger, Robert Coover, Lorrie Moore, Stanley Elkin, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Don DeLillo, Flannery O'Connor.

Oh, let's not forget F. Lee Bailey. And Dr. Seuss.

Boyle, widely admired for his acrobatic verbal skill, wild narratives and quirky characters (in one short story, he imagines a love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev's wife), has dazzled critics since his first novel in 1981.

Consider this example, from Larry McCaffery in a 1985 article for The New York Times: "Beneath its surface play, erudition and sheer storytelling power, his fiction also presents a disturbing and convincing critique of an American society so jaded with sensationalized images and plasticized excess that nothing stirs its spirit anymore.... It is into this world that Mr. Boyle projects his heroes, who are typically lusty, exuberant dreamers whose wildly inflated ambitions lead them into a series of hilarious, often disastrous adventures."

But as much as critics will bow at his linguistic gifts, some also knock him for resting on them a bit too heavily, hinting that the impressive showmanship attempts to hide a shortage of depth and substance.

Craig Seligman, writing in The New Republic in 1993, pointed out that "Boyle loves a mess. He loves chaos. He loves marshes and jungles, and he loves the jungle of language: luxuriant sentences overgrown with lianas of lists, sesquipedalian words hanging down like rare fruits. For all its exoticism, though, his prose is lucid to the point of transparency. It doesn't require much deeper concentration than a good newspaper (though it does require a dictionary)."

Reviewing The Tortilla Curtain in 1995, New York Times critic Scott Spencer scratched his head over why Boyle had invited readers along for this particular ride: "Mr. Boyle's fictional strategy is puzzling. Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting. Perhaps Mr. Boyle has received too much praise for his zany sense of humor; in this book, that wit often seems merely a maddening volley of cheap shots. It's like living next door to a gun nut who spends all day and half the night shooting at beer bottles."

Growing up, Boyle had no aspirations to be a writer. It wasn't until his studies at State University of New York, where he as a music student, that he bumped into his muse. "I went there to be a music major but found I really couldn't hack that at the age of 17," he told The Writer in 1999. "I just started to read outside my classes -- literature and history. I wound up being a history and English major; when I wandered into a creative writing class as a junior, I realized that writing was what I could do."

He then started teaching, in part to avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War, and later applied to the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.

After a collection of short stories in 1979, he released his first novel, Water Music, called "pitiless and brilliant" by The New Republic, and has shuttled back and forth between novels and short stories, all known for their explosions of character imagination. Mr. Boyle's literary sensibility ... thrives on excess, profusion, pushing past the limits of good taste to comic extremes," McCaffery wrote in his 1985 New York Times piece. "He is a master of rendering the grotesque details of the rot, decay and sleaze of a society up to its ears in K Mart oil cans, Kitty Litter and the rusted skeletons of abandoned cars and refrigerators."

In his review of Drop City, the 2003 novel set in California commune that won Boyle a National Book Award nomination, Dwight Garner joins the chorus of critical acclaim over the years – "Boyle has always been a fiendishly talented writer" – but he also acknowledges some of the criticism that Boyle has faced in these same years.

"The rap against Boyle's work has long been that he's a sort of madcap predator drone, raining down hard nuggets of contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor on the poor men and women in his books while rarely giving us characters we're actually persuaded to feel anything about," he wrote. "This is partly a bum rap -- and I'd hate to knock contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor -- but there's enough truth in it that it's a joy to find, in Drop City that Boyle gives us a lot more than simply a line of bong-addled innocents led to slaughter."

But perhaps the neatest summary of Boyle's work would be from Lorrie Moore, one of the novelists to which he has been compared. In a 1994 New York Times review of Boyle's short story collection Without a Hero, she praised Boyle's "astonishing and characteristic verve, his unaverted gaze, his fascination with everything lunatic and queasy."

"God knows, Mr. Boyle can write like an angel," she continues later, "if at times a caustic, gum-chewing one. And in this strong, varied collection maybe we have what we'd hope to find in heaven itself (by the time we begged our way there): no lessening of brilliance, plus a couple of laughs to mitigate all that high and distant sighing over what goes on below."

Good To Know

Boyle changed his middle name from John to Coraghessan (pronounced "kuh-RAGG-issun") when he was 17.

He is known almost as much for his ego as his writing. "Each book I put out, I think, 'Goodbye, Updike and Mailer, forget it," The New Republic quoted him as saying. "I joke at Viking that I'm going to make them forget the name of Stephen King forever, I'm going to sell so many copies.

Boyle's philosophy on reading and writing, as told to The Writer: "Good literature is a living, brilliant, great thing that speaks to you on an individual and personal level. You're the reader. I think the essence of it is telling a story. It's entertainment. It's not something to be taught in a classroom, necessarily. To be alive and be good, it has to be a good story that grabs you by the nose and doesn't let you go till The End."

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    1. Also Known As:
      T.C. Boyle
    2. Hometown:
      Santa Barbara California
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 2, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Peekskill, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. in music, State University of New York at Potsdam, 1970; Ph.D. in literature, Iowa University, 1977
    2. Website:

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
2006 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of T. C. Boyle’s extraordinary debut novel Water Music, a wildly comic romp through England, Scotland, and Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Water Music follows the parallel adventures and misadventures of Ned Rise, a petty criminal/unscrupulous entrepreneur risen from the mean streets of London, and Mungo Park, the erstwhile Scottish explorer determined to be the first white man to set eyes on the Niger River.

Stolen from his alcoholic mother at birth, Ned Rise becomes a street urchin forced to beg in order to survive. As he grows up, Ned graduates from begging to more lucrative schemes: staging live sex shows in the “Reamer Room” at the Vole’s Head Tavern, selling “the finest Russian caviar” (made from sturgeon eggs hauled from the Thames), grave-robbing, and various other ill-fated ventures. Accompanied by frequent beatings and imprisonments, Ned follows a circuitous path that finally leads him to Mungo Park’s second expedition to West Africa.

Mungo’s first expedition had been a hair-raising run through the African gauntlet, filled with near-death experiences at the hands of hostile Moors, particularly the fearsome Dassoud, Scourge of the Sahel, a man whose hatred of the Nazariniknows no bounds. Nevertheless, with his native guide, Johnson, who demands as payment for his services a quarto edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, Mungo fulfills his dream of reaching the Niger. Back in London he is hailed as a hero, writes a bestselling account of his travels, marries the lovely Ailie, who waited for him with the patience of Penelope, and settles into a dull domestic life. But he has the explorer’s itch and can’t resist the lure of returning to Africa to map the Niger and open it to British trade. This time he brings guns and gifts, soldiers and slaves and prisoners, Ned Rise among them, to facilitate the expedition. Despite, or perhaps because of the larger force, the resistance they meet is even fiercer than before as Mungo and his crew embark on their perilous journey down the Niger.

Within this framework, Boyle fills his novel with a sparkling cast of characters—the four-hundred pound African queen Fatima, the lovelorn and disconsolate Gleg, the treacherous Smirke, the eternally intoxicated Billy Boyles, the morbidly perverted poet Adonis Brooks, the ghoulish Dr. Delp, and an arresting assortment of hags and thugs, crocodiles and cannibals.

Spanning two continents and satirizing two distinctly different but uncannily similar cultures, Water Music bristles with all the imaginative energy and lacerating wit that have made T. C. Boyle one of the most engaging voices in all of American literature.

ABOUT T. C. BOYLE

T. C. Boyle is the bestselling author of Talk Talk, The Inner Circle, Drop City, After the Plague, T.C. Boyle Stories, Riven Rock, The Tortilla Curtain, Without a Hero, The Road to Wellville, East Is East, If the River Was Whiskey, World’s End (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award), Greasy Lake, Budding Prospects, Water Music, and Descent of Man. His fiction regularly appears in major American magazines, including The New Yorker, GQ, The Paris Review, Playboy, and Esquire.

A CONVERSATION WITH T. C. BOYLE
How do you feel about Water Music twenty-five years after its publication?

I feel the way I do about my own firstborn child—Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle, an accomplished fictioneer in her own right. That is, I feel humbled and struck dumb with love at the thought of it (and her). I did not know if I could write a novel when I beganWater Music—to that point I’d only written stories—and so it will always be significant to me because I learned as I went. Ditto parenting. Kerrie was an infant (yes, diapers and mush) when I was writing this book and so it was a very special time in my life.

Lord Twit asks “what is history, pray tell, if not a fiction?” (p. 98). How would you describe the relationship between history and fiction, or between historical fact and literary imagination, in your work?

Since Water Music I’ve written five other novels with historical settings—The Inner Circle, Drop City, Riven Rock, The Road to Wellville, and World’s End—and am currently working on another. I do feel, as many before me have said, that history is merely a version of events, whether that be our own personal history as reflected in memoir or the received history of a nation as codified in the history books, and that fiction can enlighten us along these lines. That said, I am not interested in the conventional historical novel, but rather one in which the obsessions of the past are revisited on us today—for our delectation and edification both.

Why were you drawn to write about the obscure Scottish explorer Mungo Park? Do you feel there is a kinship between writer and explorer?

Excellent observation. Yes, of course, a literary artist is forever exploring unknown territory. Whereas Mungo was doing the heroic work of exploring terra incognita, we writers are doing the same sort of thing with regard to the landscape of the unconscious.

You write about the hostility between Muslims and Westerners in Water Music in a refreshingly comic way. If you writing the novel today would you approach this subject differently, in light of 9/11, the Iraq war, etc.?

Inevitably, yes. But back then I was merely reflecting the history of the period, which, of course, was itself reflecting the immemorial battle between Christianity and Islam for dominance, going all the way back to the Crusades. Water Music is about cultural imperialism and that is what the current and ongoing war between the West and Islam is all about. I suppose that makes the novel even more relevant now than when it was first published.

How were you able to imagine Africa so vividly from the vantage of Iowa City?

Well, I like to joke that at the time I didn’t have bus fare to Des Moines let alone Boussa—I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then in the University of Iowa English Department, working toward my Ph.D. in nineteenth-century British literature. That perhaps was the key, the deep involvement with the novels of the period. That, and the fact that my sly, postmodern take on the historical novel had a lot to do with our cultural prejudices and received opinion on Africa and Africans. Plus, of course, I do have an overheated imagination.

Water Music is filled with crushing disappointments—ambitions thwarted, schemes gone wrong, dreams destroyed. Why do these characters so rarely get what they want?

No one gets what he/she wants (which is godhead and eternity). We are all doomed. But we fight against the doom, as Ned Rise does, because that is the nature of the human spirit, a spirit of questing and invention.

Why did you choose to have Ned Rise as the last man standing at the end of the novel?

I will let the reader reflect on that. Truly, it’s not for me to say.

Why did you choose an episodic structure for Water Music?

Quite obviously because the novel works in the way of the nineteenth-century novel of Dickens, Trollope, Meredith, et al. The outward form, I think, is suitable to the period—and suitable to subverting (happily, I hope) the reader’s expectations of such novels.

How has your writing changed since you wrote Water Music?

Again, that’s not for me to say. I do feel, however, that I’ve attempted all sorts of effects in my short stories and novels, from the picaresque-absurdist romp of my first novel to the rather gripping realism of my last, Talk Talk. I believe that a story is an exercise of the imagination and that are no limits as to form or mode—I see everything as story, as art, and I am trying, day by day, to discover something new, something exquisite and revelatory. Something that may even bring me—and my readers—closer to the godhead through those moments of transcendence only nature and art can deliver.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Water Music combines elements of the picaresque novel—a satirical narrative in which a roguish character of low social standing (Ned Rise) survives by his wits—with the classic story of a hero’s quest (Mungo Park’s search for the Niger River). What makes these subgenres so intriguing? What effects does T. C. Boyle achieve by joining them?
     
  • Water Music jumps back and forth between “savage” Africa and “civilized” England. What distinguishes these cultures from one another? In what ways are they alike?
     
  • Defending his tendency to embellish, Mungo Park asks Johnson: “Can you imagine how unutterably dull it would be if I stuck strictly to bald bare facts—without a hint of embellishment? The good citizens of London and Edinburgh don’t want to read about misery and wretchedness...their lives are grim enough as it is. No, they want a little glamour, a touch of the exotic and the out-of-the-way. And what’s the harm of giving it to them?” (p. 121). Why do readers hunger for the exotic? What are some of the consequences of this desire to have or to read about exotic experiences? Can Mungo’s speech be applied to Water Music itself?
     
  • In what ways can Ned Rise be read as a kind of shadow or alter ego of Mungo Park—the dark underside of Mungo’s noble ambitions? In what ways do Smirke and Dassoud mirror each other? What other parallels can you find between African and British characters in the novel?
     
  • What aspects of early nineteenth-century British society does Water Music satirize?
     
  • Water Music is extraordinarily rich in metaphor—“lightning plays over the horizon like the flicker of ideas,” “his progress . . . was as leisurely as the drift of continents,” “the odor of fish hangs in the air like a tale of waste and carnage.” What do such metaphors add to the novel? What pleasures do they give?
     
  • What is the significance of Ned’s rise from an abused street urchin, petty criminal, and outcast to a messiah among the pygmies of Africa? In what ways is he like a messiah?
     
  • Water Music is a rollicking comic novel. What are some of the funniest scenes in the book? How would you describe T. C. Boyle’s particular brand of humor?
     
  • How are women depicted in the novel? What does Water Music suggest about the lives of women in Britain and Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century?
     
  • Why does Ned prevent Mungo from killing Dassoud in the final scene of the novel? Why does he grasp the pistol “as if it were the key to the universe, the Holy Grail, the deus ex machina that could lift him up out of the doomed boat and hurtle him to safety” (p. 426)?
     
  • Water Music was first published in 1981. In what ways is it still, or perhaps more, relevant today than it was twenty-five years ago? What does it contribute to our understanding of colonialism in Africa and to the current tensions between Muslims and Westerners?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 22, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This book has been in my list of top ten all-time favorites sinc

    This book has been in my list of top ten all-time favorites since I first read it decades ago. There may be other authors with TC Boyle's facility with and love of the english language, but none with more. Hilarious, brilliant, a must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2009

    Boyle's First Well Worth Keeping

    I enjoyed this one. Both as a stand alone story, but also as a revealing first work. Seeing the beginnings of Boyle's style and craft allowed me to see the arc as he has grown as an artist.

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    Posted March 12, 2009

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    Posted December 30, 2008

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