Rewriting the ‘Boy Genius’

Caitlin Horrocks’s debut novel builds on a rich tradition of women writers who complicate the myth of male virtuosity until it crumbles.

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Last year, the indie rock singers Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus formed a supergroup called boygenius. In a Billboard interview, Dacus traced the name to the combined frustration and envy the three women felt toward “hyper-confident” male performers too convinced of their own talent to take criticism or share the stage. While recording, she said, “we’d just tell each other, ‘Every thought is worth saying. Just be the boy genius. Act with confidence.’ That was helpful, even if it is based off of a toxic characterization.”

Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus are not the only artists to simultaneously criticize and channel the boy-genius trope. Contemporary fiction has a rich vein of women writers exploring the bravado of male artists in order to demonstrate the limits it imposes. This proves an effective way to undermine the myth of male genius; rather than condemn the trope outright, these novelists complicate it until it crumbles. The peak of the form, to my mind, is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995), which explores the German Romantic poet Novalis’s youth with acid wit. In that book, as well as Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife (2003) and Erin Somers’s Stay Up With Hugo Best (2019), male swagger quickly reveals itself to be a trap: The more airtight an artist’s confidence, the more it seems to stunt his emotional growth.

Caitlin Horrocks’s debut novel, The Vexations, a fictional dive into the early life of the French composer Erik Satie, riffs on this form. Rather than making Erik her sole protagonist, Horrocks includes his loved ones: his brother Conrad; his girlfriend, Suzanne Valadon; his friend Philippe; and his sister Louise. By writing her male virtuoso from the inside and outside, Horrocks creates a wrenching portrait of overconfidence as a destructive force.

Little, brown and company

Erik begins The Vexations as a boy “magnificently without shame”; in his adulthood, that shamelessness transforms into unlimited ambition. He crashes through fin de siècle Paris as a poorly mannered cabaret accompanist in worn, flamboyant velvet suits, climbing on chairs at bourgeois restaurants and challenging the director of the Paris Opera to a duel after he refuses to look at Erik’s unsolicited ballet score. This behavior (which echoes the real-life Satie’s reputation) humiliates Philippe, whom Erik drags along to the duel. Philippe becomes the first of many characters to abandon Erik, exhausted by his friend’s antagonistic approach to life.

That antagonism stems from entitlement, which courses through The Vexations. Erik expects attention from the moment he arrives in Paris. Tellingly, Horrocks very rarely shows him working. Rather, she has him wondering irritably “why [he hasn’t] superseded himself by now.” This question may motivate artists at all stages in their careers, but in Horrocks’s hands, it becomes less productive ambition than immature demand.

Smartly, Horrocks places Erik’s egotism in contrast to the circumscribed world of his sister Louise, whose gender, in early-20th-century France, sentences her to a small and often grief-filled life. In childhood, Louise is so dutiful that neighborhood women call her “Little Mother,” trusting her to enforce their rules. As an adult, she longs for glory, but can barely even ask for affection. The first time Erik declares to her that he will be famous, she reacts with mixed emotions. “Somebody has to be extraordinary. Why not you?” Then she thinks, “Why not me? The thought quiet as a puff of steam from a boiling pot.” This is her lone reach for ambition, and Horrocks presents it in domestic language, the image trapped at home with Louise.

Louise serves as Horrocks’s reminder that Erik’s confidence is predicated on his maleness. She also helps teach the reader to like her brother. Her affection for him is a key point of complexity in The Vexations; it springs from habit and envy and awe, emotions plenty of sisters have felt toward their older brothers. This familiarity allows Horrocks to zoom in on Erik’s inner self: Initially at his most human with Louise, as he behaves more like an artist, he forgets how to respect or care for his sister. In Erik’s faltering relationship with Louise, Horrocks shows a crucial piece of his humanity disintegrating.

As Erik approaches fame, his personal life collapses. The celebrated Claude Debussy arranges his work, and he collaborates with luminaries such as Serge Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau. His dreams are coming true—but he’s made himself a stunted Peter Pan, hiding his growing loneliness behind aggressive antics and a worsening drinking problem. Horrocks turns to another female character to demonstrate the severity of Erik’s loss: The first time Suzanne, the woman he’s fallen in love with, shows him real empathy, he treats her with cruelty. He has lost the capacity for connection, and with it, the capacity to be cared for.

This leaves Erik with only music, which he recognizes belatedly is not quite enough—an awareness spurred by his struggles to collaborate with Cocteau. When his professional relationships are called into question, he wonders about the root issue: “Failure of consideration, or failure of empathy? The former makes him a hero, Artist Above All; the latter makes him something broken.” The answer to that query lies in its placement within the novel. Only art—and its public reception—spurs Erik to mull his “failure of empathy.” All he wants is to more effectively assert his musical superiority. Erik cannot stop behaving like a boy genius; he’s a grown man with a child’s impulses—and that, in Horrocks’s telling, makes him broken, no matter how beautiful and lasting his music may be.

Reading The Vexations, I often thought about its predecessor, Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which offers a brighter telling of a similar story. Whereas Horrocks writes her boy genius’s life as a tragedy, Fitzgerald approaches her protagonist’s early years as comedy. Like Erik, Novalis—in the novel, referred to by his real name, Fritz von Hardenberg—is extremely attuned to his own feelings, but unaware of much else. He’s brilliant but ridiculous, and with the exception of his hero-worshipping brother Erasmus, his family doesn’t take him very seriously. In college, he blossoms into a boy genius of the first order, but the moment he returns home, his hyper-confidence becomes a running joke. Fitzgerald’s supporting characters, especially the women, handle Fritz with laughing patience. They have total faith in his intelligence, but don’t grant his overblown ideas the weight he himself accords them.

Fitzgerald’s method beautifully reverses the sad trajectory on which Horrocks—working within biography—sets Satie. Fritz buys into the myth of male genius, but his family teases him and prods him out of it. They push him to grow up, which no character in The Vexations does for Erik. Comparing the two men underscores the hazard in Erik’s commitment to himself as an artist. He picks art over humanity, and despite his work’s lasting musical importance, he ends the novel with no audience at all.