The Satirical IntellectuaL

By Anthony Miller

“Love conceived as a ritual,” writes Alexander Theroux, “while it works to make the power of passion sovereign, nevertheless captures reason in the kind of lucid discomfort we sadly yearn for even as we feel the pull of the voluptuous threaten us.”

In Laura Warholic or, The Sexual Intellectual, Theroux’s first novel in 20 years, an epic satirical exploration is structured around a couple that are entirely wrong for one another and a man who sets out, as he says, “to study all the threnody-befucked oddities of love and sex.” Over the course of the novel’s 878 pages, no subject is beyond reproach, no sacred cow is spared: Jesus, Judaism, Generation X, lesbians, rock bands, the city of San Francisco, the concept of democracy, and America itself. Theroux’s outrageous, astounding, exasperating novel is philosophical and vitriolic, full of humorous micro-jeremiads and scabrous rants, delivered with malevolent glee, littered with a litany of learned commentary from everyone from Alexis de Toqueville to Waylan Flowers and Madame. So, who is Laura Warholic? Who, for that matter, is Alexander Theroux?

The central character in Laura Warholic is Eugene Eyestones, a sex columnist for a Boston magazine called Quink. With his love of Good & Plentys and his enmity for Procter & Gamble, Eyestones sets out to comprehend his world through his column. He spars with the rest of Quink’s editorial staff, a grotesque pageant of repugnantly intolerant know-it-alls who, as Eyestones observes, “clawed and fought like fractious eggheads at a faculty meeting every time they met.” Incapable of declaring his romantic desires to the true object of his adoration, Rapunzel Wisht, Eyestones enters into an egregiously incompatible relationship with Laura Warholic, ex-wife of his editor Minot “Mickey” Warholic. Eyestones likes old Hollywood cinema and compiles minutiae on Marilyn Monroe while Laura prefers to watch The Night Porter over and over; Eyestones collects old 78s while Laura champions Cheap Trick. Their entirely-too-star-crossed courtship culminates in their hitting the road, embarking on an ill-fated cross-country car trip, and, in “traveling the abyss d’Amérique,” finding that America gazes also into them. In everything Eyestones critiques lurks an image of Laura, who represents all that Eyestones abhors – or does she?

 

Was it that he had been with her for so long that he suddenly felt, could feel, could actually feel, deserted by her indifference? What was it in the deep alienation of her being, of her bedlam mind, of her outerborough inexclusivity, of her lost fish-swiveling excuses, of her need, of her chaos, of her contradictions, of her almost immaculate and yet demented disarrangement to which he responded?

When I suggest that Eyestones is like Theroux’s version of Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” – and that Theroux even insinuates West’s phrase “tropism for order” – Theroux asserts he never thought directly of Miss Lonelyhearts when he hit upon his protagonist’s occupation. “I merely have the conviction that love/sex/romance is the area that best epiphanizes life’s lunacies, lows, lights,” he wrote to me recently in an e-mail from his home in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. “I remember that columnist’s ‘tropism for order,’ of course – part of an obsessive-compulsive drive to counterbalance life’s chaos.”

Unrepentantly erudite and opinionated, Theroux is a prolix polymath with a predilection for employing the proper word (even if you’ve never before seen it) and for chronicling obsessive behavior, usually between men and women. He is the author of three previous novels, Three Wogs, Darconville’s Cat, and An Adultery, a book of poems, The Lollipop Trollops, and two wonderfully free-associative collections of “color commentaries,” The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors. (A corollary volume on black and white has been completed, and he is looking for a publisher.) He is the older brother of novelist Paul Theroux. “I am close to my brother Paul,” he writes. “We know what each other is writing. No passing manuscripts back and forth. No declamations of ur-material read to the winds on Cape Cod dunes.” He is also the uncle to Louis Theroux, author of The Call of the Weird. Among certain circles of readers, however, Alexander is the writer bearing the last name Theroux who is most scrupulously read.

Like his description of Eyestones, Theroux is possessed of an “assemblagist’s imagination” and an “encyclopedic knowledge of many unlikely subjects.” “Every writer writes the book he wants to read is a truism I would subscribe to,” he explains. Theroux’s books, for example, pullulate with lists. “I love lists, the taxonomy of a subject gathered in. The headline for the review of Darconville’s Cat in the New York Times Book Review was ‘Awash with Lists.’ It was a grudging review written by a peevish little cucurbit who spitefully and arbitrarily chose to blame me for a literary device – lists – that other writers of the encyclopedic novel, Francois Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, to name but a few, were not only praised for but revered in the department of invention.”

In one chapter, “What in Love or Sex Is Not Odd?,” the author amalgamates Biblical, political, historical, cinematic, and artistic observations about love and sex (J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite drag ensembles, Greta Garbo’s erotic attachment to Montecristo cigars, the longest kiss in film history). Theroux’s references roam seemingly without horizon; one could suppose that the real mind at work within the pages of his novels is not that of Darconville or Eyestones but Theroux himself. How does he retain all this esoterica? He keeps neither index cards nor files for the quotations and other trivia he deploys. “I write fast and have a strong gift of recollection,” he says. “I keep a full palette and am ready with my brush. I have often raced my car to the side of the road to record a sentence that came into my head. The miracle of Christ’s Transfiguration was that He was not brilliantly illumined everyday.” For Theroux, the question is not how to incorporate these ten-dollar words and killer factoids, but why all readers don’t feel that his works are enriched by these embellishments. “Why isn’t everybody interested in ten-dollar words? In killer factoids? In the world’s amazing outofthewayiana?”

Indeed, the most distinctive feature of Theroux’s writings is his incomparably capacious vocabulary. His books teem with words that will send even the most secure sesquipedalian scurrying to an O.E.D. What are among Theroux’s favorite words? “Redemption, change (I have a mistrust of constancy). I also love the words dugong, nitwittery, Christmas, pot roast, and reclusive. There’s never any good news in the newspaper about someone who is reclusive,” observes Theroux. “The phrase ‘You’re forgiven.’ And of course the name Walter Von Der Vogelweide.”

Darconville’s Cat, Theroux’s best-known book, tells the story of Alaric Darconville, a 29-year-old professor whose affair with a student torments him with thoughts of revenge to usurp the passion which has vanished. The 1981 novel was nominated for the National Book Award and named by Anthony Burgess in his 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939. On a September 1992 Bookworm radio show, Michael Silverblatt protested the fact that Theroux’s novels had fallen out-of-print and called Darconville’s Cat “perhaps the century’s most tortured novel of love.” The novel is a masterful intellectual performance on the themes of love and hate, with epigraphs prefacing each chapter, and specific chapters structured in such forms as an abecedarium, an oration, a list of a “Misogynist’s Library,” and an “Unholy Litany.”

As in Darconville’s Cat, the characters in Laura Warholic are suspended between love and hate, fascination and fright, and all the tribulations that these emotions are heir to. “I think if anything Laura Warholic is about the paradoxes of love. Laura, who is empowered by the role that Eyestones gave her, found enough prestige in it to leave him, discovering in authority the power to reject. Validated by what we are given, we often turn on the person who gave it,” he says. “Remember Adam and Eve?”

He does not dispute the similarities between Darconville’s Cat and Laura Warholic. “Perhaps I wrote the same novel again. I do know that both novels repeat my fascination with both love and language, loss and limerence,” he states. (“Limerence” is a term coined by psychoanalyst Dorothy Tennov for intense romantic desire.)

For all the criticism he directs at Generation X, I ask Theroux whether the Gen Xers aren’t the readers most likely to embrace his references to, say, Chia Pets, Pebbles Flintstone, and the David Byrne Big Suit as they might a riff on Petrarchan love poetry. “I taught that generation for years – at the university level, mind you,” writes Theroux of his students at Harvard, Yale, MIT, and the University of Virginia. “Unlike yogurt, they have no active culture. They seemed to have inklings of things only. They knew all about Gomer Pyle and the words to ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and what went into a Croque Monsieur, but they rarely seemed to care about what went on way before them.

“I will admit that it is a generation who does read. Can the same be said of the young people today? All of these videophiles, Internet ferblets, indulged little Millennios. On the other hand, what examples do they have? Have you heard a single memorable remark made by any of these presidential candidates? It is one witless drone after another. Talk about the necessity for another Dunciad!”

When I inquire about contemporary satire to pick up where Alexander Pope left off, Theroux writes: “Where is satire in American literature? Poe got ham-handed trying to write it, Melville silly. Sadly, people point to the movies of Woody Allen, the pretentious farces of a self-conscious nebbish who never went to college trying to prove he is bright. Which is why Edward Gorey loathed him.” Does he think that political correctness has killed, or, at the very least, discouraged real satire? “Political correctness is to satire what Rush Limbaugh is to reason,” he says.

Theroux’s 1975 personal manifesto “Theroux Metaphrastes” was an encomium to “amplificatio,” his defense of all things polysyllabic, encyclopedic, and maximalist in writing. “I wrote ‘Theroux Metaphrastes’ in the ambit and company of my double who from sheer neglect happened to have inside a lot of pent-up words at the time. I had a lot of pent-up words writing Laura Warholic, all those years having almost no other place to vent. I am rarely called upon to write an article, asked to contribute a poem, tapped to contribute an opinion, solicited to compile a list, you know, of my favorite books, that sort of thing,” laments Theroux. “There is a waterfall thundering down, but no one’s at the pool below. They are all over at the Palais Jamais, bouncing up and down, waiting for the next magician.”

At one moment in the novel when Laura discourses on rock music, Theroux writes, “Eugene could almost see her words take on the visual form in inane radulations of comic-book art.” Although her words never assume this visual form, Theroux’s new novel has this in common with comic-book art: It is the “first original prose novel” to be published by Seattle-based comics publishers Fantagraphics. The publisher previously put out Theroux’s two artist monographs, The Enigma of Al Capp and The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. “I love great illustrators, cartoonists,” says Theroux, “and Capp and Gorey were simply enjoyable to write about.” When I asked him how Fantagraphics came to publish Laura Warholic rather than some high-profile New York literary-fiction house, the author replied, “Editors are lazy and unimaginative. They all woo the same writers they all fight over, recycling the same names. Most of them couldn’t tell a good manuscript from a pile of bumph.

“I have no agent. I never really could get in touch with one,” he tells me. “I’d sent my long novel to a bunch of New York publishers. Two returned it virtually unread. Another complained literary novels don’t sell. One was worrying about the cost of paper. A publisher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found the novel too controversial, a fat, swithering neutral who refused to send my full typescript back and still has it. A thief and a dunce. I believe he went all pear-shaped because in the novel I ridiculed Jews, but I ridiculed everybody,” says Theroux. “‘Small indeed is the literary world that welcomes a work of genius,’ said Siegfried Sassoon. Fantagraphics alone was willing to publish the full manuscript without carping or cozy abridgements.”

Theroux was first drawn to writing by “old radio dramas, Walt Disney movies, my father’s dramatic readings to us, at night, in bed, by candlelight, when we were small – Kidnapped, Gulliver’s Travels, The Last of the Mohicans. I distinctly remember the illustrious name of James Fenimore Cooper made me pause in what Sir Philip Sidney called, in another context, ‘thought’s astonishment.’ I recall so well seeing in an old book a drawing of Washington Irving in a state of pondering. This was an author. A breed apart. Evangelists.”

He continues to be inspired by Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens, Henry James, Trollope, Proust, Tolstoy, and Borges. “Thoreau is very special to me. Wallace Stevens is too great. I still read Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal with delight. I realize these are the heavy hitters, but I am in awe of all good writing. I love Jacobean drama. I like Edith Wharton. Even Raymond Chandler, even though he hated ‘literary writers.’”

Regarding his own process of composition, Theroux is modest and straightforward: “Pads, pencils, silence, time. A very long time. And the resignation of having to accept insolvency before, during, and after. For this novel I earned less than a Burger King tweenie in a paper hat. But nowhere should you compromise. You have to find plenitude in your work and redemption in your dreams.”

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