1. Full disclosure
Defending his prose, Alexander Theroux once likened it to “a Victorian attic.” In an interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction, he admitted a complete lack of interest in plot, saying, “character is plot, anyway.” He once called revenge “the single most informing element of world literature.” He’s said, several times and in several ways, that “good writing is above all an assault on cliché.” These four statements give you the keys neither to the man nor his work, but they’re about as advantaged a start as you’re going to get. At the very least, they arm you with a notion of what to expect: more inner life than outer, more desire for vengeance than for anything else, and more sheer stuff per page — stuff you don’t expect — than in any other novels.
Yet Theroux isn’t just a novelist. Two interpretations of that sentence, both true: (a) he writes in other, non-novel forms as well and (b) the novels he does write are more than just novels. (Also consider the entirely possible (c), that his novels themselves contain all the other forms.) Given his longtime standing as a producer of poetry, essays, fables, critical studies and much bill-paying journalism, you’d might rightly wonder why you don’t hear more about him. Of his four novels within the purview of this piece — by themselves a barely chewable bite, I assure you — only the latest remains in print.
I myself was only prompted to explore Theroux’s body of work by way of that latest title, 2007’s Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual. Scanning the publishing landscape, as usual, for interesting books to feature on The Marketplace of Ideas, the public radio program I host and produce, I came upon a review of the book from Rain Taxi:
Alexander Theroux’s new novel, released twenty years after his previous one, is a massive, 878-page compendium of vituperation against contemporary society, jabs at pop culture, exposés of office politics, and exploration of life and love in modern times. It’s what you’d expect from an encyclopedic novel: wandering, erudite, funny, opinionated, didactic, repetitive. But unlike other mega-novels of the past few decades, Laura Warholic presents a fairly straightforward tale: Eugene Eyestones, a near-blind, Bible-quoting, record-collecting Vietnam vet turned journalist, writes a sex column for a magazine called Quink, where he works in the employ of the enormous, revolting, bullying Warholic (who throughout the book is only referred to by his surname). Enter Warholic’s ex-wife, Laura Warholic née Shqumb, a woman who “was never rational, brave, fastidious, exact, friendly, meticulous, cheerful, clean, precise, orderly, accurate, loyal, constant, disciplined, scrupulous, particular, kind, or faithful.”
Intrigued, I checked out the tome and found that not only was there even more to the text than that — so, so much more — there were three previous novels where that came from. The disclosure to be made here is thus that I have interviewed Theroux on the radio (a transcript is here) and, both in preparation and as a result, have been willingly, inexorably drawn into his sui generis literary world.
2. Three Wogs
Theroux’s 1972 debut isn’t exactly a novel, but we can’t ignore it. Is this a collection of short stories? Not exactly, since its 216 pages are divided into only three substantial sections, each of which feels as if it outweighs that label. Is it a set of novellas? Perhaps, though they’re linked geographically, temporally and thematically with such closeness that they couldn’t quite be such separate entities. Let’s just call it a triptych.
Theroux lived in London for a stretch or two of his late youth, and there seems to have tuned in to an ugly psychological frequency. Whatever its official literary form, Three Wogs is a study of the particularly foul flavor of English racism prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. The island’s sudden, colorful postwar foreigner influx hits each segment’s snow-white subject hard: in “Mrs. Proby Gets Hers”, a blowzy widow sees in her Chinese grocer neighbor the germ of a disease destined to hollow out her fetishized repository of pride, tradition and afternoon teacakes; in “Childe Roland”, complete with echoes of Browning’s poem, a doltish laborer, insane with imagined challenges to his sexuality, grows more and more hostile toward the Indian engineering student with whom fate traps him in a train station; in “The Wife of God”, a meek reverend finds himself thwarted but still cannot beat back his throbbing attraction to an African choirmaster.
Because these hapless Englishmen and -women are steeped in a deep, pervasive fear of ethnic pollution, those on the irony hunt need look no further than Theroux’s merciless elaborations of their personal qualities. To carve out a small but representative excerpt:
A blocky, cuboidal head, faced in pinks and whites and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry, surmounted a body that made Mrs. Proby look like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus. [ … ] She was paradigmatic of those fat, gigantic women in London, all bum and elbow, who wear itchy tentlike coats, carry absurd bags of oranges, and usually wheeze down beside you on the bus, smelling of shilling perfume and cold air. She wore “sensible” shoes, had one bad foot, smoked too much, and cultivated a look as if she were always about to say no.”
Roland and the Reverend come out little better. The former bears “a sharp young English face: peaky, unamiable, suspicious,” “spotted by a rash of comedones near the mouth which was hardly improved by a rather savage case of asymmetrical dentition.” His body resembles “one continuous bone” with “a painful year-round dose of scrotitis,” appearing in sum total to be “a cruel broom.” The Anglican, less of a villain than his counterparts — it’s his mother who comes in for the real bashing — looks “as spruce as an onion, wearing an off-white shirt of satinet with Wildean flounce at the sleeves,” has a “volleyballshaped head that looked like the full, round topside of an Harrovian boater.” His is “the soul of an interior decorator.” These are the products of the treasured English gene pool so desperately, futilely guarded.
As you’d expect from a book whose title is half ethnic slur, the “wogs” who stoke such pronounced reaction in the natives are drawn a little broadly. Though noble, in their way, they act dopey, come from comically deprived and punitive backstories and bounce from solecism to solecism in precisely the manner of a caricature assembled in Roland or Mrs. Proby’s barren imaginations. But the immigrants are as classical heroes compared to the Britons, who crumple under voluminous salvos of precision-targeted satirical savagery. By the end of each tale, nothing remains. Already, Theroux’s hunting eye for hundreds of minor details — cultural, social, personal and otherwise — and his linguistic ability to make them major combine to form his most powerful weapon. And in retrospect, it’s no surprise that the action on which these bravura dissections and destructions of character hang is driven by spite, resentment, and revenge.
3. Darconville’s Cat
And yet, what in Three Wogs could have prepared readers for the book now most widely regarded by Theroux’s fans as his masterpiece? To be sure, his debut showcased a drive to reclaim the English language’s least-trod territories. Picric, the very first word of its main text, doubtless sent almost every reader to the dictionary, and, like many others scattered throughout the text, likely raised resentment at his “showing off.” But the word, an adjective normally used to describe “a poisonous, explosive, yellow, crystalline acid” but pressed into Theroux’s service to evoke the celluloid face of Fu Manchu, admits no substitutes.
But every single chapter of Darconville’s Cat brims with vocabulary so exotic, so idiosyncratic, so perfectly descriptive that nobody, no matter how literate, could ever grasp it all in the first pass. They’ll often need to consult their reference shelf, physical or virtual, only to find that half the words in question haven’t been regularly used in 400 years, and many of the rest Theroux seems to have simply made up. Picric, hell; trapfall, gibbet-high, imperscrutable, gulsar, mixt, lugubrious, obligate (as an adjective), archistrateges, unction, obol, insurrect, grimoire, sacristan, demulcents and rubefacients pop off the first five pages alone. 699 more follow, wherein Theroux crafts these words into prose, verse, list, litany, essay, dialogue and heroic couplet alike.
You might fear that such diversity of interior form and not-immediately-relatable vocabulary must convey an equally inscrutable story. But the tale of Alaric Darconville, a 29-year-old English lecturer voluntarily embedded in a women’s college in darkest Virginia, isn’t so far out of the realm of plausible human experience. Not the first half of the narrative, anyway, whose details bear an uncanny similarity to those of Theroux’s own. Both are of French and Italian extraction. Both are novelists. Both spent years under a vow of silence in a Trappist monastery. Darconville teaches at “Quinsy College” in “Quinsyburg”; Theroux taught at the identically laid-out Longwood University in Farmville. Photos from the early 1970s reveal a Theroux who, at first glance, appears to be cosplaying as Darconville at his own fan convention, long hair, full-black wardrobe, vintage Bentley and all.
So, too, do both Darconville and Theroux seem to have been jilted by one of their own students, intellectual bantamweights but brimming with the loveliness of imperfection. Isabel Rawsthorne, the 18-year-old making and undoing of Alaric Darconville, comes from shoddy stock and nurtures the slightest of artistic and educational hopes. She balances her preposterously high self-regard with a preposterously low self-regard that sends her skittering back to a gawky local farm boy as soon as her wedding to the worldly professor looms too close. A 1978 profile in the New York Times Magazine hints that Theroux didn’t even bother to give the fictionalized target of his desire a different name, though elsewhere in the article his lawyer brother suggests that, whatever her name, she was no more prepared for marriage to Theroux than to any given stranger. Yet as the girl’s lack of seriousness doesn’t stop Darconville from contemplating revenge, it didn’t stop Theroux from, by literary means, taking it.
The book’s first half is very much a love story, drawn intimately and without apparent cynicism. But cracks begin to crawl gradually across in Darconville’s mental façade of Isabel as an ideally golden, innocent object of love. After relocating from stultifying Quinsyburg to no less august an educational institution than Harvard University, Darconville is forced under the wing of Dr. Abel Crucifer, a reclusive professor emeritus who also happens to be a morbidly obese, woman-hating eunuch. His bizarre lifestyle and the ideas that undergird it allow Theroux to bust out the formal big guns. Crucifer speaks against the female in general and the two-timing Isabel in particular with towering walls of allusion-thick text. Listing the titles in his library of misogyny requires nine straight pages. His suggestions as to the means of Isabel’s murder — “Pound hand-fids into her nociceptors! Tattoo her down the spine with Symmes’ Abscess Knife! Rasp her around the neck with a xyster!” — demand another chapter of their own.
In Isabel, we have the introduction of a type of huge importance to Theroux’s three novels qua novels: the twitchy, flighty female whose half-baked aspirations, buoyed by an inflated self-image, generate just enough momentum for survival but are perpetually beaten down from higher things by a mixture of confusion, hopelessness and sheer ignorance. Theroux cannot seem to keep his sophisticatedly brutal observational powers turned away from these sorry types for long, and we readers are all the better off for it. Whether in the textual body of Isabel Rawsthorne, An Adultery‘s Farol Colorado or Laura Warholic’s title slattern, no novelist has ever watched or created an archetype like this one with such accuracy, such sorrow, such — it must be said — sudden-public-burst-of-laughter humor.
4. An Adultery
Some call language like Darconville’s Cat’s — or even Three Wogs’ — an authorial thumb in the reader’s eye, a self-indulgent unwillingness to sacrifice precision for accessibility that dares you to attempt comprehension. Whether or not those accusations hold any merit, they’d seem to be addressed by An Adultery, an insistently realistic, concretely contemporary novel whose words rarely, if ever, raise the speed-bumping supracranial question mark.
In any other novelist’s bibliography, An Adultery would be the weird outlier. It’s the weird outlier in Theroux’s, too, but it’s weird by virtue of seeming “normal.” This is why it’s often the one I recommend when asked for the best gateway into Theroux’s work. Yes, its voice is still pitched at quite a high level, and yes, the text contains countless digressions heavy with logic, psychology, intricate verbal reasoning and even essays on visual artistic technique and the history of adultery itself. But it speaks, very broadly, in the manner of the other, infinitely more prosaic novels about the sexual intrigue of thirtysomething-to-middle-aged northeastern Americans.
Much of the difference has to do with the first-person narration. The novel eschews the godlike, all-knowing, all-seeing, English-language-defeating third-person voice that narrates Theroux’s other three, opting instead for words straight from protagonist Christian “Kit” Ford. A painter who chose the part of art after being orphaned in childhood, Ford finds himself in adulthood precariously suspended between two ladyfriends. The young, almost imaginarily sweet Marina, still kept within the confines of her parents’ home, really is everything Darconville delusionally assumed Isabel to be. Farol, a married, wheel-spinning frame shop lackey in her early thirties, is the continuation and then some of Isabel’s other side, the one destructive at once to herself and, more so, to others.
Ford is a more believable human being than Darconville. Given the latter’s rootedness in Theroux’s own character, that might sound illogical, but there it is. The author’s own personality has been called everything from eccentric to a work of art in itself, so it would be hard for Ford not to seem mundane, if engagingly so, by comparison. But it’s his overwhelming attraction to Farol, clearly unreasonable yet somehow not implausible, at the center of the book. Nearly every one of its 396 pages piles on to an extended indictment of Farol’s manner, her character, her actions, her reactions and the hollow, posturing subculture that surrounds her. It’s also our hero’s indictment of himself for a fixation on her that metastasizes steadily, rapidly and seemingly against his will.
This is the purest exercise of Theroux’s “character is plot” mindset. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to call it one long description of Farol Colorado. If that sounds unappealing, bear in mind that she’s of a very particular breed — a very particularly dysfunctional breed, if you will — that’s both immediately, deeply recognizable and, for whatever reason, one other writers never touch, let alone with unsurpassed incisiveness, for 70 chapters. Farol is the ultimate study of the blandly beautiful woman who, desperately afraid of her poverty of anything else to offer the world, builds around her a crystalline superstructure of self-mythology, cobbled together out of rootless thirdhand knowledge and unbridled fancy, riven with every imaginable variety of ineptitude. Here is Theroux, as Ford, recalling their “conversation” on long drives:
She talked by way of remarks and in isolated phrases. I was amazed that her speech effectively allowed her to appear seemingly present while in fact she was totally absent. Since she depended on others for a voice, I thought her inability to do more than this was an indirect confession of her own failure. It was as if her mind had narrowed, congealed, to a hard ten or fifteen or so facts she lived by to get what she could. She was not often lighthearted, but that didn’t stop her from telling jokes. Not jokes. Her way of trying to be funny — it is often the humor of the non-reader — was becoming fixated with and constantly repeating certain words and phrases she found odd. Mung beans. Aqua wawa. Maple surple. Yummo.
This is the sort of woman Theroux has made his literary bread and butter, yes, but the words also resonate as a spot-on targeting of a certain sort of modern monster. An Adultery is a book of its time, to be sure; there’s a timelessness to Theroux’s writing, only less so when he’s evoking this primary color-clad, white wine-sipping mid-1980s milieu. But there’s got to be a certain universality in a book that contains perhaps the saddest, sharpest observations on this strain of humanity that I’ve ever heard: “Every time we passed a certain kind of house she would always nod and say, ‘Greek Revival.’ I soon realized it was the only type of architecture she knew.”
As with Darconville and Isabel, Kit Ford is grandly worked over by his inferior, and if the slow, inexorable shift in his monologue is anything to go by, it pushes him right up to the brink of sanity — and possibly over it. This is where Theroux’s beloved revenge most visibly appears in the narrative, though humanity’s eternal score-settling compulsion runs as a tense undercurrent throughout the whole. Unlike poor Darconville, he doesn’t end up coughing his guts out in Venice while his beloved ties the knot with a sailor, but Ford still ultimately loses, and loses big, despite — or because of — his superior clarity of thought to the world around him, his greater precision of language.
5. Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual
Theroux has called An Adultery a novel about “the corruption of language.” I would argue that all his novels are, in their own way, about that. Look how Three Wogs’ blinkered nationalists have obviously long since stopped caring about the relationship of their brash, sweaty declarations to the situation’s underlying reality, how they incompetently marshal so much mangled verbiage in defense of the unblemished Britain that never existed. The doomed heroes of the novels that follow are both wordsmiths: Darconville by trade, Ford by his means of grappling with adultery’s inherent paradoxes. But they’re surrounded by those who unthinkingly debase the language: maleducated barflies, hard-haranguing Baptist ministers, disaffected New England blowhards, arty-crafty parochial poseurs. What’s worse, their women, scratching impotently against their roiling insecurities and utter voids of identity, dismantle language actively.
This brings us to Eugene Eyestones and Laura Warholic, the central pair in Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual’s cast of what must be hundreds — or a hundred, anyway. The Rain Taxi review excerpted above actually provides a worthy synopsis, so far as it goes, and so far as it makes sense — which isn’t far at all — to synopsize a book like this. Having renounced most social intercourse, the near-ascetic Eyestones spends his life contemplating humanity through the lens of sexual intercourse. His tool of understanding is — what else? — the printed word. The spent, chaotic, borderline-illiterate Laura Warholic catches his attention as both a singularly fascinating case study in raw, unsublimated Dionysian and self-preservation impulses and as a potentially salvageable symbol of the intersection of decadence and ignorance where, as Eyestones and possibly Theroux see it, civilization has landed.
Here, Theroux’s assault on cliché hits its apex. You might consider the release of Laura Warholic the anti-cliché nuclear option. Despite its considerable linearity, if only in the context of today’s literary-fiction zeitgeist, the novel is still flamboyantly unconventional, loaded so densely with theories, observations, arguments, counterarguments, counter-counterarguments, calumny and ridicule that its 878 pages almost feel insufficient. Indeed, the book’s cinder-blockish heft remains, alas, its most remarked-upon quality. Too many reviewers seem to have placed the book on a scale, glanced over the outrageous dialogue spouted incessantly by its teeming rogues’ gallery of the misanthropic and/or — usually “and” — the misshapen, and written it off as a nothing but a madman’s ream of racial, sexual and religious slurs.
Where Darconville’s Cat’s language was its perceived thumb in the readerly eye, this book’s sheer length and its alleged excess of extreme opinion and paucity of plot have been similarly called out. It’s true that, aside from a remembered cross-country van trip with Eyestones at the wheel and his repulsive alinguistic muse in the passenger’s seat and a classically tragic build to the bitter end, there aren’t many events. And Theroux does indeed plop many a disquisition on Eyestones’ fascinations social, sexual and cinematic right into the middles of these seas of characters’ reflection and interaction. One chapter, a Darconville’s Cat-reminiscent list of oddities from the history of love and sex, captivates even those disposed to hate Theroux and his work.
6. The question of misanthropy
And thus the book has been called “the Moby-Dick of misanthropy” due to more than its size. Melville’s tome is inseparable from whaling, especially when it’s serving up technical essays on the subject; Theroux’s is inseparable from man’s loathing of man, examinable through sex or anything else. In my interview with him, his disappointment at Laura Warholic’s apparent failure to meet his expectations for it became something of a leitmotif:
My book hasn’t been well-received; it’s been basically ignored. I think it’s a very important novel, but it’s been ignored by people. I even had a hard time getting editors’ attention: it’s too long, it’s too pyrotechnic, it’s too multisyllabic, it’s too opinionated, it’s endless, there are longueurs, there are digressions. But one of the criticisms is that it’s pitiless, even cruel and unsparing. That’s what people are not used to. They’re used to Tom Wolfe’s jokey and affectionate lashings-out, kind of cartoon explosions. You have to look at Hunter Thompson’s attacks to see real cruelty.
I don’t know anybody that’s doing the kind of — this book is not being written by anybody, this kind of prose, this kind of writing, because it’s too savage, too unflinching. People just don’t want this. “Why do you have such attitudes?” people tell me. “You’re so extreme! You’re so opinionated! This is so savage!” But satire, my point is, is savage. I’m thinking of a remark that Nathanael West made in The Day of the Locust, when he said, “Nothing is sadder than the truly monstrous.”
I find that the interviews Theroux gives and the factual pieces he writes show him clearly to be a non-monster. But when the overwhelming tendency to conflate author and character meets an author who doles out easily identifiable biographical facts of his own to his characters and doesn’t hesitate to push those characters well beyond monstrous under the banner of his ever-harsher, ever-bloodthirstier satire, predictable consequences ensue. But I don’t think he pounds at the boundaries of satire out of his own hatred for humanity; I suspect he does it out of something more like disappointment, which requires a funny sort of optimism about our capacity for goodness.
7. Fuller disclosure
Despite his evident niceness, I still can’t shake the image from my mind of Alexander Theroux as a guy whose bad side you really, really don’t want to get on. Maybe it’s just the prospect of winding up like the real-life Isabel Rawsthorne, the real-life Farol Colorado or — the mind reels — the real-life Laura Warholic. This seems like such a danger because the man’s books are so unrelentingly hilarious. I haven’t emphasized this enough, and it’s a quality no critic ever fully gets across, but not a day goes by when I don’t think of an observation, a crack or a turn of phrase from these novels. Be it one conveyed through the erudite romanticism of Alaric Darconville, the icy cruelty of Christian Ford, the curious equanimity of Eugene Eyestones or simply the untranslatably language-crazed magpie mind of Alexander Theroux, I laugh, often hard.
Theroux is the perfect example of the sort of author I’d want to befriend, yet as I feel somewhat unworthy of the art — for every allusion that delights me, I feel ten whoosh overheard — I feel somewhat unworthy of the artist. The volumes lining the interior of his head are undoubtedly more interesting than anything I could offer. You can see this in the way that, despondency over Laura Warholic’s halting progress aside, he doesn’t seem to care about his novels’ unavailability.
Literary broadcaster Michael Silverblatt once questioned Theroux’s “perverse appreciation” at how inaccessible his books are thought to be. Perhaps he sees his finely-wrought works of language and their lack of purchase on the culture as an apocalyptic indictment of that culture, of the intellectually (and especially verbally) careless society that could corrupt them. Were I him, I feel as if I’d want revenge: against lazy readers, against unengaged critics, against risk-averse publishers. But maybe, given what they’re all missing out on, he’s already taking it.
Dustin Long is the author of Icelander (McSweeney’s). He’s currently working on his Ph.D. in 18th-century literature at Indiana University and recently completed a novel about Jesuits in 17th-century China.This year, I read a good deal of “literary fantasy,” although as Gene Wolfe points out, “All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.” I just finished Wolfe’s epistolary two-volume Wizard Knight, which manages to create something entirely fresh and vital out of the most familiar and overused of fantasy elements. It reminded me in some ways of the 1748 picaresque novel The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett, which I also read this year, and which I also recommend. The first two books of Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet (brought to my attention by the writer Jeff VanderMeer, whose hallucinatory City of Saints and Madmen I did not read this year, but nonetheless recommend) were a lot of fun: fabulist Middle Eastern history and all the variety of old-fashioned tale cycles woven into character-driven novels. And finally, Darconville’s Cat, by Alexander Theroux, was infinitely impressive: Theroux’s daunting vocabulary and classical erudition are balanced out by his broad humor (southern stereotypes abound) and his emotional acuity.More from A Year in Reading 2008