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Ecstasy in a Frog Pond: 
T. Coraghessan Boyle and the Sublime
Written by Elizabeth Brunner, 1996,  for Literary Theory class at Cal Poly under Professor Larry Inchausti


"Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos ... to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream."  -- John Cheever


“I swear a mouse is proof enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” -- Walt Whitman 

       With our lives gone stale and our world quickly approaching an expiration date, we victims of technological numbing crave the sublime, crave any experience of intensity. Responding to both the despondency and the absurdity of modern American life, contemporary author T. Coraghessan Boyle slams his readers awake with tension-filled prose. Despite that bohemian black-leather smirk on book jackets, Boyle builds transformative and political messages into his bizarre, often dark, fiction. In the unforgettable short story “Hopes Rise,” Boyle juxtaposes environmental disaster with the life-force chorus of breeding frogs, producing a moment of deliberate sublimity. 
       Although writing in the third century, Longinus provides a definition of the sublime powerful enough to illuminate text centuries later in our jaded age. Certainly we need the sublime now more than ever; we need to be exalted, elated, and ecstatic. As Longinus describes, “the soul is raised by true sublimity, it gains a proud step upwards...” (60). The sublime overpowers our reason and our senses, lifting us into a transformed state. In science, the sublimity process requires heating a solid into a gas and then condensing the vapor back into a purified solid form. Similarly, the literary sublime condenses meaning into passages of such “extraordinary genius” and beauty that the reader is purified by a quantum leap in understanding (56). 
       In “Hopes Rise,” Boyle uses caustic wit to illuminate “a world hurtling toward ecological, fiscal, and microbial disaster” (Boyle, 27). The narrator Peter and his girlfriend Adrian attend an academic conference on batrachiology (the study of tail-less amphibians) and learn from an eccentric biologist that frogs face imminent extinction. Peter feels “drained, desolate, a mass of meat, organ and bone slipping inexorably toward the grave along with my distant cousins the frogs and the toads” (35). Compelled, the couple search puddles and ponds for the “elusive toad, Bufo americanus” until they hear “that sound, that trill, that raucous joyous paean to life.” Standing transfixed, the couple witness “toads uncountable -- humping in a frenzy of webbed feet” and then sink together into black water swarming with frogs. 
      Boyle generates momentum through what critic Charles Champlin terms “language-intoxication”  (Stone, 53). A master of composition as foreplay, Boyle moves with creamy rich text and orgasmic images toward the climax of sublime revelation. His grand conception taps into both growing concerns about environmental destruction and weariness over the emptiness of our lives. Emotion and urgency transfuse Boyle’s metaphoric vocabulary; the unconventional scientist gives “his dreadlocks a Medusan swirl so that they beat like snakes round his head” and then agonizes over the death of frogs in “wild burnished declamatory tones.” (31-2). Careful syntax dramatizes the harm we have inflicted on nature – “the robin beat its shabby wings and was sucked away on the breeze” -- while also celebrating the earth’s rejuvenation -- even the air is “pregnant, rich, thick with the scent of renewal” (25, 36). Boyle’s delicately ordered plot merges temporal action with the approach of springtime, the breeding season of frogs, and the emotional catharsis of characters. 
     Finally, Boyle offers the sublime song of nature: “And then a single toad at the edge of the pond started in with his thin piping trill and in an instant we were forgotten and the whole pullulating mass of them took it up and it was excruciating, beautiful, wild to the core” (39). The impact of this enraptured chorus of nature is foreshadowed three pages before, when Peter wakes astounded. He recognizes, “All that moping, all those fears, the named dread and the nameless void: it all evaporated in the face of that hosanna of a morning” (36-7). As readers, we join Boyle and his characters at the pond, spirited above the mundane by that glorious symphony of the humble frogs, inspired to lift our own voices with the crescendo of the universe. 
      Unfortunately, Boyle jeopardizes the sublime by carrying the story one paragraph further. Adrian removes her black lace bra, Peter tosses his “Yankees cap into oblivion,” and “the toads leapt for their lives” as the couple make love in the pond. I understand the beauty of intimacy and the connection between flesh and creation -- but Boyle’s final image focuses on the tossing of clothes rather than the transcendent bond between lovers. Book reviewer Lorris Moore describes this conclusion as “a false rapture, a road-show holiness” (Moore, 157). Perhaps Boyle, like so many of us, finds that the overpowering transformation we desperately seek can ultimately frighten us beyond the capacity to comprehend. I mourn our timid retreat back to base concerns in the face of excruciating beauty. 
Works Cited
Boyle, T. Coraghessan. “Hopes Rise.” Without A Hero. NY: Viking Penguin, 1994. 25-40. (The short story was first published in Harper’s, March 1991) 
Longinus. On the Sublime. Trans. A.O. Prickard. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1906. Rpt. in Criticism: Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan and William Anderson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 3rd ed. 1991. 54-93.
Moore, Lorris. “No One’s Willing to Die for Love.” New York Times Book Review. May 8, 1994: 9. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. David Segal. Vol. 16. NY: Gale Research, 1994. 
Stone, Les. “T. Coraghessan Boyle.” Contemporary Authors. Ed. Hal May. Vol. 120.  Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. (brief citation of reviewer comments).

 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner