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William Boyd–TRIO

“The title of a novel came mysteriously, unbidden, into her head—The Zigzag Man.  She could almost see the cover in her mind’s eye.  A clever use of the two zeds; perhaps different colors for the “zig’ and the “zag”…She poured herself more orange juice and went back to the cupboard for the Samson’s, emptying the last half-inch into the glass.  Better buy another bottle of voddy, she told herself.” – Elfrida Wing, author.

51HZOiIv9bL._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_In Trio, the sixteenth novel of his long career, author William Boyd is at the peak of his game, creating a trio of stories within stories involving overlapping characters and all the tumult involved in the ongoing production of a film.  Set in Brighton, England, in 1968, the novel is both a comedy and a serious contemplation by individual characters, of who they are, where they are going, and whether it matters. Three separate, individualized narratives feature the three main characters and their friends, while an overall narrative connects the making of a film with these characters.  Though the film’s action and its script are in a state of constant flux, author William Boyd is firmly in charge.  Every detail, every absurd action, and every surprise contributes to the overall mood and direction of the novel, and at the conclusion, which has surprises of its own, every question will be answered, and satisfying resolutions will have taken place in the lives of all the characters – and within the reader.

author photo

Author William Boyd’s photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis

Boyd’s own experiences as a filmwriter for over a dozen films help to make the complexities of this elaborate narrative more palatable for the reader – and more lucid.  Elfrida Wing, an author who is the wife of Reggie (Rodrigo) Tipton, the film’s director, opens the novel with a scene illustrating her problems with alcohol,  even early in the morning.  She has not published a book in ten years, and though she has just thought of a new title for a new book, she recognizes, through the haze, that “Titles were the easy bit – writing the novel was the awful challenge.”  Another main character, Talbot Kydd, the producer of the current film project Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon, hides some unspoken questions about his own sexuality and refers to some annoying problems with people on the set of the film.  Anny Viklund, the star of the film, opens her first chapter by getting out of bed with a young star of the film, having enjoyed the night.  She insists on absolute secrecy regarding their relationship, however.  Each of these three introductory scenes averages only two to three pages in length – resembling a quick scene from a movie, inserted to pique the interest of the viewer at the beginning before going on to more complex issues. Questions of love and marriage and sexuality in the first scenes combine with the more mundane complexities arising in the filming as the three main characters and several minor characters connect and reveal additional problems.

Garden, Virginia Woolf's Monk's House

Garden, Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House

Boyd continues to use this pattern throughout the novel, with the three main characters rotating through their separate chapters, each one providing small bits of information to the reader, and minor characters flitting into and out of these scenes and expanding the focus.  Elfrida strains under her identification by a critic as “the New Virginia Woolf,” as she has never really liked Virginia Woolf.  Eventually, she becomes obsessed with writing about the last year of Virginia Woolf’s life, collecting privately printed pamphlets about her and personally visiting her house, garden, and the River Ouse, where Woolf drowned herself.  Elfrida makes contact with local people who knew Virginia Woolf, and she contacts her own literary agent and her editor to prepare them for the books she plans to write.  Having not written anything for ten years, however, she has a hard time trying to convince them to provide her with advances. During this time, she works on her opening paragraph for the Woolf book, and readers and fellow writers will find her series of six “first paragraphs” – in all their changing iterations – a surprising and entertaining study of writing and editing.

The Alvis TF21, a rare car, is one of Talbot Kydd's favorite possessions.

The Alvis TF21, a rare car, is one of Talbot Kydd’s favorite possessions.

Talbot Kydd’s story, as producer of the film, is significantly more complicated.  He must deal with his “producing partner,” Yorgos, who sometimes acts on his own and not always with Talbot’s interests at heart.  It is not long before Talbot figures out that he is being defrauded of his share of a contract for another film. He is also visited on the set by the British Special Branch and the FBI about an escaped criminal, Cornell Weeks, star Anny Viklund’s ex-husband, who wants a significant sum of money so he can escape to Mozambique.  Adding to the chaos, Talbot’s director Reggie Tipton has hired a new screenwriter with whom Reggie is having an affair, and an aging star is now demanding a scene in the new film.  Troy Blaze, Anny’s lover and a heartthrob in the film, needs a song, yet to be written, to promote the film for Talbot.  As for Anny, the “thinnest” of the characters here, she is desperate to stay clear of Cornell, her ex-husband, but not strong enough to enforce her demands. Then suddenly, without prelude, Anny disappears, making her unavailable for filming and, perhaps forcing a different conclusion for the film.

On a trip to France, Anny visits Cap Ferret Photo by Eric Cowez.

On a trip to France, Anny visits Cap Ferret. Photo by Eric Cowez.

The conclusion resolves all the characters’ personal and thematic issues without sentimentality or overt emotionalism.  All the main characters change, resolving their biggest issues in their own unique ways, looking at their lives through new lenses.  Well developed lesser characters also make some changes, adding to the novel’s scope and further cementing William Boyd’s reputation as one of the finest writers of the day, a man with unlimited imagination and the ability to bring to satisfying fruition even the most unusual plots and schemes.  The full scope of Boyd’s talent in depicting characters through their behavior (and my favorite ironic detail from the novel) may be deduced from a song which Troy Blaze writes for Anny and which he hopes will be included in the film:

              I knew I’d never be the man you wanted

              I knew I’d never be your Mister Right

              But all the same my life is haunted –

              My heart’s marshmallow, yours is anthracite.



Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.dailymail.co.uk    Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis.

The garden at Monk’s House, home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, may be found here:  https://www.pinterest.com

The Alvis TF21, a rare car, is one of Talbot Kydd’s favorite possessions.  https://www.historics.co.uk

On a trip to France, Anny finds her visit to Cap Ferret especially relaxing.  https://www.123rf.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Literary, England, Social and Political Issues
Written by: William Boyd
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 01/19/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318232
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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