Around halfway through British writer William Boyd’s new novel, Trio, Elfrida tells her agent: “People are opaque, utterly mysterious. Even those dearest to us are closed books. If you want to know what human beings are like, actually like, if you want to know what’s going on in their heads behind those masks we all wear—then read a novel.” Boyd has written nearly a score of novels, plus three plays and screenplays, and he’s produced five collections of stories telling us what people are actually like. In Trio, his 16th novel, Boyd reveals the inner workings of human beings—well, actors, producers, directors, and writers, anyway—in an intriguing story about showbiz folks that soon involves British Special Branch, the American FBI, and possibly the CIA. Told, of course, in three parts, Trio, is prefaced with two epigraphs, one of which is an excerpt from an Anton Chekhov short story: “Most people live their real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy.” That line, which comes from the story “The Lady with the Dog,” continues: “…and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.” (Constance Garnett translation) In pulling back those covers, Boyd reveals fascinating central and minor characters with hidden and often double lives. Each character grapples with his or her own problems, some of which—addiction and alcoholism—they’ve created themselves. Boyd makes Talbot the most level-headed of the lot, as he finally determines: “We cannot control most aspects of our lives … but those we can try to control, or at least influence, we should protect and cherish.”
The first part of the novel is aptly called “Duplicity.” It’s 1968 in Brighton, England, when Talbot Kydd, one of the title’s trio, is producing the film Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon, starring the young, skittish American actress Anny Viklund, who is the second of the trio. Talbot’s director is a man named Reggie Tipton, but it’s his wife, Elfrida Wing, who completes the triad. Talbot, in his mid-60s, is a married, but still-closeted gay man, even after the “1967 Sexual Offences Act,” which legalized homosexual acts. Talbot, under the name Eastman, keeps a flat in London where he leads a secret life taking photographs in his studio. He also halfheartedly checks out a gay club in Brighton called The Icebox, one of several clubs that have recently opened since the change in British law. Besides trying to keep his private life concealed, Talbot, an ex-Army Major, contends with all sorts of problems on and off the set. He manages colorful personalities: a flighty but fragile actress, eccentric minor supporting actors, and a temperamental director who wants to be called Rodrigo, instead of Reggie. You might think that these eccentric movie types would be a tad stereotypical, but Boyd manages to make believable, and sometimes humorous and pitiable people out of his major characters and even the supporting cast. Even minor characters like the gay private investigator, the FBI agent, and the Special Branch inspector seem interesting and true to life. Can you imagine navigating, assuaging, and directing all “the talent” and the other colorful personalities, plus contending with police from two countries who want to question your lead actress? Besides all those difficulties, Talbot has to contend with his “friend,” the duplicitous co-producer with a Kafkaesque-sounding name that might not be real, Yorgos Samsa, who is trying to swindle him over their next film.
Anny is one of the few characters who doesn’t have or use two different names, unless you count her character in the film, Emily Bracegirdle. Otherwise, she’s li’l ole Anny Viklund, the once unknown girl from Lake Harbo, Minnesota. Anny’s private life includes an ex-husband, Cornell Weekes, who is an “urban terrorist” and escaped criminal, and two current lovers. She depends on drugs: tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and the diet pills—Equanil, Seconal, and Obetrol. Anny wakes up every morning wondering if this day is going to be the day that she dies. Most of Anny’s lovers have been old men, but her current lover during the film’s shooting is Troy Blaze. That’s his nom de théâtre, anyhow. He’s a young, good-looking pop singer who, like “Dave Clark, Adam, the fucking Beatles, Lulu,” gets to sing a song in the movie. “Most people I know—in this business—don’t use their real names,” Troy says. “Same with me.” Readers will realize and even Anny knows that being a pop star called Nigel Farthingly might be “kind of hard.” Anyway, Anny tries to keep her fiery romance with Blaze hidden from her co-workers, her fans, and her other lover Jacques Soldat. Anny has told Troy about Jacques, but he doesn’t mind her having a second lover. It helps that Jacques lives in Paris and is currently there, at least for a while. “Out of sight is out of mind, as they say,” Troy says. “Out of sight, but very much in mind,” Anny says. Jacques is a middle-aged Guadeloupean “radical philosopher,” whose real name is Mehdi Duhameldeb.
Elfrida Wing, the director’s wife, is an alcoholic novelist, with suicidal tendencies, who hides her vodka in a vinegar bottle. In book reviews, Elfrida has been compared to Virginia Woolf, but she doesn’t see the similarity and doesn’t really care for Woolf’s work. Elfrida hasn’t written a novel in 10 years, but she’s certain she can get started again. She keeps thinking up titles for her future novels, the latest names being The Zigzag Man and The Last Day of Virginia Woolf. Elfrida’s husband Reggie Tipton is a philanderer having a fling with a younger screenwriter who’s been hired to rewrite parts of the script. Elfrida has tolerated his cheating several times over the years they’ve been married. But she isn’t exactly an innocent, either, since she was complicit in cheating with Reggie, as they were having the affair when he was still married. After the success of her novel The Big Show, Elfrida and Reggie finally married. Then she had her miscarriage and “Everything had gone wrong after that, yes, that was the crisis point.” Besides being a cheater, Reggie is a pompous ass who’s legally changed his name to Rodrigo and insists on being called that. Eventually, she is determined to write the Virginia Woolf book and thinks the writing of it will solve her drinking problem. With that book in her head, “Life was suddenly worth living again.” Eventually Elfrida researches and follows Woolf’s life so closely that she even contemplates suicide in the manner of Virginia Woolf: wearing a fur coat with a stone in her pocket and drowning herself in the Ouse River. But even though Elfrida answers the fundamental philosophical question posed by Camus and quoted in the book’s second epigraph about deciding whether life is worth living, she still wants her agent to get her a two-book advance from her publisher.
Talbot doesn’t know a lot about some of the more private problems of the folks around him, but besides dealing with the typical kerfuffles on the set and the possible theft of film stock, his biggest problem is dealing with the Special Section detective inspector and the FBI agent who show up to question Anny about her husband Cornell, who they’re certain is in Britain to contact her. When Cornell does meet up with Anny, he wants money, which she borrows from Talbot to give him. It seems rather odd to me that Talbot doesn’t suspect that the money Anny wants ostensibly for “peace of mind” has something to do with Cornell. He wonders if it was “Blackmail? Some sort of pay-off? Gambling? A debt?... None of my business.” I guess, as he says, he has a “lot on his plate.” Soon, the FBI and Special Branch have more questions, and Anny flees the country, leaving Talbot without a lead actress. So, he sets off to find her.
Trio is a fine, well-tuned novel with plenty of perfectly-paced drama, wit, and intriguing plot twists that accompany its more serious themes about privacy, secrecy, and Camus’s one fundamental philosophical question from which all questions follow. Since Boyd’s story is populated mostly with film folks, and knowing that Boyd has had his hand in screenplays and plays, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t write the screenplay for this story, even if film doesn’t quite reveal what’s going on in those masked and private human heads as perfectly as the novel.