March 2008

Sean P. Carroll


An Interview with Alexander Theroux

Alexander Theroux is a writer who resists classification. His first book, Three Wogs (1972), is a triptych of novellas that examined the class and racial conflicts that occur between the archetypal Londoner and the inhabitants of the British Isles, the “wogs,” who are “not one of us.” This exceptional debut received a nomination for the National Book Award. Theroux’s second novel, Darconville’s Cat (1981), is widely considered his masterpiece. Anthony Burgess hailed it as one of the best 99 novels written in English since 1939. Darconville’s Cat is an exquisite novel of revenge and thwarted love. It too was nominated for a National Book Award. An Adultery (1987) is a detailed, fictional character study of the sin in question in a contemporary New England that still manages to evoke the echoes of its Puritanical past. Theroux has also published two widely regarded books of essays, The Primary Colors & The Secondary Colors (1994 & 1996), along with a collection of poems, The Lollipop Trollops & Other Poems (1992), as well as two monographs and several books of fables.

Laura Warholic, or The Sexual Intellectual, published by Fantagraphics,is Theroux’s first novel in twenty years and it certainly does not disappoint. Theroux’s inimitable maximalist prose finds ample targets in this vicious satire. Eugene Eyestones, the Sexual Intellectual of the title, is a sex columnist for a Boston cultural magazine run under the aegis of Minot “Mickey” Warholic, Laura’s ex-husband. Although Laura represents all of the horrors and inanity of contemporary America, Eugene becomes embroiled in her life to a degree that is both fascinating and farcical; all while loving from afar the mysterious beauty Rapunzel Wisht. The novel is filled with Theroux’s ferocious linguistic virtuosity and his unique perspective on the folly of humanity. The odyssey of Eugene and Laura, coupled with an unforgettable climax, show an author writing at the height of his powers and make Laura Warholic a novel of brilliance and permanence.

This interview was conducted via e-mail during the end of January and early February.

Laura Warholic is your first novel published since An Adultery in 1987. What are the origins, multilayered and murky perhaps, of this outrageously brilliant novel and its perilous path to publication?

One thing that primed the pump was the reflection over the years that sex is possibly one of the best, if not the best, telescopes to ponder human beings. A novel is about many things, not one. I wanted to exorcise myself of some thoughts I liberally gave to Eugene Eyestones, for a novel is a hotcupboard of gathered thoughts. I love to write and wanted to create a gallery of faces. The chance every morning to ventrilocate the voices of multiple characters is a joy not many know. Making sentences is creating jewelry. I love to fashion a good paragraph, so coming up with such a book as Laura Warholic is not only a serious daily task but surely an amazing self-indulgence. I especially have to enjoy what I do, as I know no one reads my books. I believe the first edition was 6,500. The population of a few small, sleepy dorps on Cape Cod where, by the way, no one knows of my new book. My librarian has not heard of it.

You have, by your own terminology, a very amplified prose style a la Burton, Montaigne, Sterne, etc. In your 1975 essay "Metaphrastes" (my apologies to Saint Symeon), you delineate the differences between the rhetorical devices amplificatio and inflatio. Could you enlighten the literary novice as to the wonder and lexical richness of amplificatio especially in relation to Laura Warholic?

Good writing is above all an assault on cliché. I actually try to make sentences. (poiein=to make, Gr.). To rely on the same old tired phrases I’ll leave for John Grisham, Maya Angelou, etc. One has almost an evangelical obligation (the four of them were writers, remember) to be original, strange, counter. (Gerard Manley Hopkins knew all about this.) Look closely, the subject of Laura Warholic is about language, the nature of communication. I had lexical ambitions. I watch some of the presidential debates. Grammatical mistakes everywhere. “Like I said…,” “Hopefully, tomorrow will see…,” etc. And every last one of them -- the American vice -- begins each sentence with, “Well…” I cannot believe this clownish tic never gets pointed out!

You are very fond of epigraphs. One of the epigraphs you use in Laura Warholic is “There is another world, but it is in this one,” by Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, a pseudonym for Eugene Grenier. There are many instances in this novel of our intrepid hero carving out this other, more refined world: his column, the Pessoa fragments he totes in his helmet during Vietnam, his anchoretic abode, etc. Is this sort of compartmentalization the only way for Eugene, and the reader, to bring any degree of grace and dignity to the outlandishness of our daily environs?

An old Trappist motto is “Be in the world, not of it.” They all said it, St. Paul, Thoreau, Rilke. Eyestones has a lot of the anchorite about him. In 1973 when I was teaching at Harvard and going through a bad patch I summed up my life, as such, to a therapist at the Holyoke Center, just a thumbnail sketch, and after listening to me for about half an hour he said, somewhat sadly -- direly -- “You’re always trying to get out of the world.” I gave Eugene a lot of myself, but he’s not me. My novel in a very real sense is the objective correlative of compartmentalizing truth. I squire this viaticum through the streets. I spoke, I travel, I did not conform. Speaking of St. Paul, he made expensive tents once. It was a lucrative business in his family. It got him Roman citizenship. Then he saw the light. Found Christ. He became very poor. He walked through the world without compromising. Squired his viaticum. Compartmentalization.

You once said that, “Revenge is the single most informing element of world literature.” How does revenge inform and infiltrate, perhaps insidiously, the various narratives of Laura Warholic?

Satire is brut art. I know the types I write about, know them well. Score settling is an artist’s prerogative, and I do not deny that in places I see a face I recognize, a pointed head with a dunce cap. I love Thomas Nast!

Names seem to be an overlooked element of your fiction. I have enjoyed the roll call of names in your fictional canon from Mrs. Proby to Harriet Trombone. How do you account for the synchronization of satire and character without resorting to crass caricature?

My characters are, in a way, people you never quite see living next to you. I don’t know how this happens. It’s just my style. But my names give these people this sort of oddity. Laura Warholic is meant to be comic. (Few dwarfish reviewers have seemed to notice this.) I believe I’m like Sterne, Dickens, Nathaniel West, etc, in this. Really, who ever had a Mr. Gradgrind or Mr. Squeers or Rogue Riderhood living next door? My brother Paul and I live to swap funny names with each other.

Most reviews of your work, Laura Warholic included, seem to focus on the encyclopedic references as opposed to the complexity of the narrative structure. It is almost as if the reviewers are asking, a la Laura, if it occurs to you, “how deformed it is to know such things.” Is this ineptitude, laziness or willful incomprehension?

Curiously, Laura Warholic is one of those novels in which the characters actually read books.You don’t often see this in contemporary fiction. People resent polysyllabic words, find it showing off, never look them up, refuse to play. Words are to a writer what paint is to an artist. I am amazed at how readers refuse to enjoy the out-of-the-way fact, the astonishing detail, the original thought. Style is taken as an affront by stupid and lazy people. Just say it, they say. Sure! Should I die or should I live basically sums up Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. Why didn’t he just say so!?

The publishing industry is one of many satirical targets in this novel. What should a literate society expect from commercial publishing houses and has the lowest common denominator become the coin of the realm, so to speak?

Every publisher is waiting for another Stephen King. They go to lunch and wait. Agents are lazy. Most editors couldn’t tell a good novel from a pile of chimney flashing. I loved Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, which I knew I would like from a quote from it in a mediocre review. I bought the book, quickly read it, and telephoned him to tell him how wonderful it was. He had sent it to about six or seven publishers who refused it. I sent Laura Warholic to several publishers, paid to copy it, box it, mail it, etc, and got it back unread within the same week. I am not exaggerating.

One of the hallmarks of your fiction has been the multiplicity of narrative forms contained within the novel. What inspired you to incorporate the lists, plays, columns, heroic couplets, etc, into the environs of your novels?

Pedantry. The delight in living. Brio. The chance to act, to mime, to mock, to mimic.

I have always been struck by the oft-ignored narrative balance that is present throughout your work. In this case take the obvious, Laura Warholic or the Sexual Intellectual. The story is Eugene’s to write but it is Laura who demands the spotlight. How important is literary balance to you as a writer and can you write effectively without it?

Good question. Really it’s a question of puppetry. One needs two worthy even if unequal adversaries/mates. Heathcliff/Cathy, Humbert/Lo, Valjean/Javert. It needn’t be just dark/light. In Milton’s Comus all actors wanted to play the weirdo, which was the plum role. All that Hegelian stuff applies.

Would you consider Laura Warholic your contemporary version of the picaresque novel?

I suppose both Eugene and Laura are picaros. I see that genre, however, as more open-ended. In a sense, Laura Warholic is bien fait -- there is a distinct story, in spite of what several reviewers I’m told have said. The novel is as solid, as blocked out, as arranged as Middlemarch. Like that book, it can be picked up and put down. Russian authors taught me the virtue of short chapters. There is a Parsifal theme. It is an essay on language. It is a study of binaries, beyond that.

When you published your last novel, An Adultery, you said that “character is plot.” Would you say the same hold true for Laura Warholic?

Name a character and start to write about him or her, I used to tell my students at Yale. Keep writing. He will begin to walk in a certain direction. Just by dint of his name. I’ve always thought Charlie Manson, although baptized “No Name Maddox,” megalomaniacally took his name seriously. Character is plot. You can almost never not be what you are. Is that gobbledygook to you?

A brief digression. I understand you have completed another book of free-associative essays, Black & White. Have you found a publisher for this book; and if so when should we expect to see it gracefully adorning bookstore shelves?

I have completed both books, 600 pages each. Black and White. I have written about the (non?) colors from every angle: art, film, food, religion, culture, etc. I am looking for an agent, as publishers, as they say; don’t want to know from nothin’! The agents are asleep or at lunch. Publishers are waiting for Stephen King to come through the door. Work in America is at a standstill.

Your books, along with many other worthy tomes, have been given the moniker of inaccessible. While I do not agree with this assessment perhaps I am in the minority. What do you expect the reading public will ultimately take from Laura Warholic?

The public will never hear of it. Middling reviews. No advertising. Too much TV as a distraction.  I believe Laura Warholic will be discovered by somebody who matters, maybe a critic in 2047, and recognition will begin.

Rapunzel Wisht is loved and worshiped from a safe distance by Eugene. Can Eugene love only the ideal but never the real? How does his odyssey with Laura in the “abyss d’Amerique” reinforce this notion?

I love the literary notion of the “irreconcilable opposites,” the dilemma (two horns) Keats addresses looking at the Grecian urn, the art/life nexus -- the gorgeous, loving creatures portrayed there, forever young but marble and missing the soft, tangibly warm beauty of human love. We fling between each pole, don’t we? Focus on the “bright star” that Keats aposeopasizes in his poem of the same name. I suspect Keats wrote his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” having walked into the British Museum after a particular spat with coquettish Fanny Brawn, who broke his heart on more than one occasion, and found solace in the perpetually beautiful Ideal. For a while. And yet that night, regretfully, yearned only to see her again, to touch her, the Real.

We mentioned lists earlier in this interview. If possible could you list five tomes that your ideal reader should have on his or her shelves?

The Bible, of course. Shakespeare, War & Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses. You asked for five, and I want to stay with your question but I love and constantly read Henry James, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allen Poe, Wallace Stevens, Vladimir Nabokov (whose priggishness and snobbish want of humanity sometimes bothers me), the Jacobean poets and playwrights and we mustn’t forget Baron Corvo.

You wrote several books of fables earlier in your career. What sort of greater truths are revealed by fables and allegories? Would you consider Laura Warholic, at least in part, an allegorical novel?

In the sense that, say Benny Profane, takes on a certain allegorical dimension, so do many of my characters by dint of their names; Rapunzel Wisht, Eugene Eyestones, Alaric Darconville, etc. It is fun to flirt by way of the fantastical with tropological levels, sort of demanding that readers ponder larger thoughts. As I say, my characters “take place” in that kind of eerie, romantic, in the sense of the genre (some would say cartoonish) world. Do you know that book by Donald Fanger, Romantic Realism? I mean, in most scenes Raskolnikov walks along and crosses very realistic St. Petersburg streets and bridges. Realism. Yet when he goes up to see the pawnbroker or gathers himself into his own world, he has left the realistic world. I portray in many if not most instances a real Cambridge and Boston in Laura Warholic, and yet my characters have been elongated or manipulated -- by doom, by description-not to be real, as such. In this sense, Laura Warholic has a lot of allegorical dimension, by way of names, nuttiness, notions.

Are there any contemporary writers that are heirs to the maximalist legacy?

T. Pynchon, G. Perec, D.F. Wallace, me. Do you know the Spanish writer’s novel Shadow of the Wind? Cortazar’s Hopscotch? I’d say such folk are heirs to Sterne, Rabelais, R. Burton (Anatomy Burton), Cervantes, Joyce.

While I feel that your books can be endlessly reread, please tell me we won’t have to wait another 20 years for your next fictional foray.

I’ve written a bunch of books, presently in boxes in ms. form but all complete: my two books on (non?) color, Black and White; The Grammar of Rock, an analysis of pop and rock and roll lyrics; Seacoast in Bohemia, a history of literary gaffes; Julia Chateauroux, the Girl With the Green Hair and Other Fables, my fable collection (18 of them); Artists Who Kill and Other Essays, my book of essays; Anomalies, a collection of ironic facts down through history (the ms. is 400 pages) and my Complete Poems (ca. 450 of them). I am working on two books, a novel, Herbert Head, Biography of a Poet, and a nonfiction book, Becoming Amelia, on Amelia Earhart. I need a MacArthur grant to work in peace. I am relatively insolvent.