Lucy and Todd

Outside Looking In — T C Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 17, 2019 at 7:28 am

Whatever you think about Timothy Leary, the guy was trouble. A pain in the arse for psychologists, for Harvard University, for parents, for Richard Nixon, even, who called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Kicked out of academe, he led a series of communes based on self-discovery dependent on the use of LSD. The honesty and possible usefulness of all this went rapidly downhill.

This novel by the prolific TC Boyle is a puzzle. It deals with many themes he’s used before: small groups of people under pressure to conform, renegade behaviour in the search for truth and spiritual fulfilment. In his excellent novel of Los Angeles, The Tortilla Curtain, he explored the frightened lives of illegal Mexican immigrants. San Miguel touchingly portrayed an unlucky family’s desperate attempt to make a living on an isolated California island. The Terranauts was a lengthy story of men and women sealed in a biosphere bubble for a year. Boyle’s early novel The Road to Wellville was a comic tour-de-force about a community of health food crackpots.

The problem with Outside Looking In is: how do you write interestingly about people who are irredeemably dull? Boyle mocks the intelligence of the Harvard postgrads who follow Leary around like ducklings, particularly his insecure graduate student protagonist, Fitz.

Fitz is not much fun to read about. He’s a jerk, a psychology academic. He’s timid. He knows nothing about himself and he’s got female breasts on the brain. It’s a little hard to believe that he teaches at Harvard. Or maybe it isn’t.

Fitz’s wife, Joanie, is the novel’s real subject in terms of revelation. Not as well educated as Fitz, she works as a local librarian. But once the psychedelics start flowing, she becomes possessive of the experience and is up for anything ‘Tim’ wants to do. When the group is disgraced in Massachusetts and moves to a hotel in Mexico, Joanie starts sleeping with the other men. This is another Tim idea: use the drugs to break down sexual jealousy. Worked for him, apparently.

We suddenly see the reality of the endeavour from a woman’s perspective. And while Joanie is gung-ho for acid and all the other stuff that’s hanging around these fearsomely conventional would-be revolutionaries (beer, wine, cigarettes, pot, martinis, station wagons and pizza), there’s still a lot of cooking and housework. Guess who does it.

It’s difficult to tell what Boyle really thinks about the little communities he writes about. At times it seems he’s chiding them for believing that anything could ever be different in America than it is. But just as often he takes their side, a champion of the inherent value of weirdness and the contrarian.

But maybe these people are just incompetents. Where is the certainty that what LSD does is genuine? Does it just poison you in such a way that you think something has been ‘revealed’? (The brain is always trying to order things, no matter what you do to it.) These sad sacks never elided grandly into the world, or transformed it. They became parasites, mooching off millionaires, fighting with cops and taking menial jobs.

The richest and best imagined part of Outside Looking In is about Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1943, and experimented with it on himself and his colleagues. Told from the point of view of his lab assistant, it’s a virtuoso performance by Boyle – joyous, mad-scientist slapstick, frightening, profound and even erotic. One could wish that Boyle’s narrative excitement here could be sustained through the rest of the novel. But then the academics arrive and humour and joy, of course, are banished, no matter what pills are popped.

In the ‘commune’ novels of Boyle there’s often a capitalist intervention – a sudden realization that somebody’s got to make some dough around here. The upstate New York group decides to offer revelation and the ‘sacrament’ (LSD) to businessmen and bored housewives, for money. Joanie, doing the dishes as usual, is looking out of the kitchen window. A man appears asking a question that startles her but reveals to us the depth of this whole ‘spiritual’ enterprise: Where do I park?

TMcE

(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2019.)

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Atelier Accolades

In accolades on February 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm

LEILA ABOULELA (author of Lyrics Alley, Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards, and other novels, radio plays, and short stories): (from published interviews)  “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” –  Mslexia

“Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” The Big Interview  –  New Books Magazine

NANCY GAFFIELD (author of Tokaido Road, CB Editions, London – winner of 2011 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.

NEIL BUTLER (author of The Roost, Thirsty Books, Edinburgh, 2011):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.

AARON SIMON:  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent. With their prodding and encouragement, I was actually able to finish writing a novel and–even more amazingly–start legitimately rewriting huge swaths of text.

JAMES WRIGHT:  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.

EMMA GLASS (author of Peach, Bloomsbury, 2018):  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.

CHRIS BENNETT (author of Gravesend, Pleasant Publishing, 2018):  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.

NIK WILLIAMS:  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.

KYLIE GRANT (Winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.

RUPERT SMITH (Winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize at the University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.

EDDIE GIBBONS (whose latest poetry collection, What They Say About You, was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Awards, Poetry Section):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.

KRISTEN LOWMAN:  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.

SUZY ROMER:  I have never seen your editing in action and it absolutely transported me! It’s as if you touched my words with a magic wand and made them better.