James R. Kincaid
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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 Nazarini knows 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 charactersthe 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.
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.
How do you feel about Water Music twenty-five years after its publication?
I feel the way I do about my own firstborn childKerrie 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 began Water Musicto that point I’d only written storiesand 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 settingsThe Inner Circle, Drop City, Riven Rock, The Road to Wellville, and World’s Endand 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 todayfor 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 BoussaI 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 disappointmentsambitions 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 periodand 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 modeI 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 meand my readerscloser to the godhead through those moments of transcendence only nature and art can deliver.
- Water Music combines elements of the picaresque novela satirical narrative in which a roguish character of low social standing (Ned Rise) survives by his witswith 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 factswithout 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 Parkthe 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?