Alcoholic novelist Elfrida Wing wishes critics would stop calling her “the new Virginia Woolf,” or she just might do something about it. American actress Anny Viklund hopes her leftist-terrorist ex-husband on the lam will keep away from Brighton where she’s busy shooting a movie. Meanwhile, aging film producer Talbot Kydd, married with two grown children but troubled by recurring homoerotic dreams, is having difficulty sustaining “the delusion that he was perhaps 50% heterosexual.”
These three are the eponymous “Trio” in William Boyd’s antic new novel, set in 1968 in the famous British seaside resort that Elfrida describes as “the Las Vegas of England.” The book is festooned with offbeat ancillary characters, including Elfrida’s philandering film-director husband Reggie (who wants everyone to call him “Rodrigo”) and Anny’s boy-toy co-star, Troy Blaze (whose real name is Nigel Farthingly). Talbot leads an alternative existence as “Mr. Eastman” in which he passes time photographing male and female nudes at his secret flat in London.
In short, almost everyone in the book is playing a role or assuming a feigned identity. Tensions between private and public selves run rampant, and more than one character is mired in “a strange, confusing miasma of emotions.” Talbot is, perhaps, the most grounded figure of the central trio. But even he struggles to find some path of conduct that will fulfill him.
“Live the life you were given … and be the person you are,” he encourages himself, before acknowledging: “Easier said than done.”
The film project bringing this crew together is titled “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon,” and Boyd’s descriptions of it make it sound as every bit as goofy as its name. As Talbot informs one of its bewildered performers, the movie’s plot is deliberately “[f]luid, ever-changing, in the spirit of the times we live in. … Swingin’ London and all that hoo-ha.”
The movie world has always fascinated Boyd. The narrator of his 1988 masterpiece, “The New Confessions,” was a director who got his start filming World War One battles and wound up mired in the anti-communist hysteria of 1950s Hollywood. Boyd himself turned filmmaker in 1999 with “The Trench,” a World War One film featuring a young cast (Daniel Craig, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw) that now reads like a who’s-who of 21st-century British male acting talent. “Trio” brings real authority to the chaos that Talbot faces as work on “Ladder to the Moon” goes crazily awry.
Talbot readily admits that in the movie world “ordinary norms of behaviour did not apply.” Still, the surprises he faces on his latest project are beyond anything he has encountered before. To say more about them would give too much away. But it’s a ton of fun to see Talbot navigate the mayhem.
Boyd can also be trusted to get his atmospherics right. One running joke in “Trio” is Talbot being driven crazy by a seven-minute orchestral pop classic/abomination enjoying continual airplay on the radio. (“That bloody song again—about the park and the cake in the rain and the missing recipe.”)
Where some writers come at the 1960s too reverently (think: David Mitchell’s ponderous “Utopia Avenue”), Boyd brings a lighter skepticism to the era and reminds us that not everyone was tuned into the turbulence of the times. When Anny discovers that young Troy has no clue about the recent May protests in Paris, you can’t help but be charmed by his explanation. “I must have missed it,” he says. “I don’t really like watching the news, to be honest. It depresses me.”
Another source of amusement — even if you love Virginia Woolf — is the derisory commentary on her place in the literary canon a few years before she became an entire cottage industry.
“Is anyone actually interested in Woolf these days?” Elfrida’s literary agent asks when she proposes writing a novel about the day of Woolf’s suicide. “She’s a bit passé, no?”
More poignantly, Boyd registers Talbot’s cautious hope in the wake of Britain’s 1967 decriminalization of homosexuality. Can a “tall bald severe-looking middle-aged man,” he wonders, really come out of the shadows and take advantage of the new freedoms of the day?
The arrival of FBI and CIA agents in Brighton, after Anny’s ex flees the U.S., may seem over the top. But there’s a real-life prototype for the increasingly desperate Anny (fans of the French New Wave will recognize her). As for Elfrida, let’s hope there’s no real literary-world counterpart for her. But she’s a hilariously appalling character, and her venom toward Woolf knows no bounds.
At the heart of the novel’s many masquerades and deceptions is a thought that Talbot has while ogling a sexy shirtless scaffolder working on house next door to his secret flat.
“[T]here was nothing to be gained by fantasising,” he tells himself, before instantly changing his mind. “There was everything to gained by fantasizing,” he decides. “[S]urely fantasising kept you sane, interested in life, connected to events, to all manner of agreeable, hypothetical possibilities.”
“Trio,” with its wickedly accurate period detail and darkly wayward farce, is Boyd at his most entertaining.
Michael Upchurch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By William Boyd
Knopf, 310 pages, $27.95