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Vol. LXII, No. 9
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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Book Review

Reader Beware: Alexander Theroux’s Juggernaut Is Here

Stuart Mitchner

Although Alexander Theroux’s vast 878-page creation Laura Warholic or, The Sexual Intellectual (Fantagraphics Books $29.95) has been reviewed as a novel, the usual terminology doesn’t begin to cover its scope. Probably there is no one right word. You could call it a juggernaut, a cluster bomb, or a vast landscape of prose mined at every turn to explode under unwary, dismissive, or agenda-driven readers or reviewers.

This is not a volume to be casually recommended. If it defies definition, it also defies appreciation. It courts both celebration and denunciation. Imagine Lemuel Gulliver storming through Lit Chat Lilliput with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Mack truck. Outrageously offensive and prodigiously provocative, this book also has more sheer fun in it than anything this side of Thomas Pynchon, though judging from the swipes Theroux takes at Pynchon now and again, he might not be flattered by the comparison. I only wish he’d put some pedant elves to the task of indexing his work because such an index would be a delight in itself. Laura Warholic has to be one of the most fabulously allusive novels ever written. It’s like google — reading it, you half-expect to find yourself or some old friend in the mix.

A warning label is definitely in order, an advisory from Surgeon General J. Alfred Prufrock (“politic, cautious, and meticulous”) that would cover Zionists, humorless liberals, pregnant feminists, hardcore humanists, listeners to NPR, San Franciscans, and the faint of heart, to name a few. Even the hardiest readers will have to make some allowances as they duck around hornets nests of racist, sexist, anti-semitic polemics from characters called Ratnaster, Mutrux, and Discknickers, most of whom are employed by a Boston journal called Quink. But these aren’t characters so much as humours, capricious goblins of rhetoric that may remind you at times of the denizens of the Nighttown chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses. If you’ve ever laughed out loud at Bloom in Nighttown, you’ll probably laugh more often than you grimace in the night world of Theroux.

The Crows

Speaking of Joyce, there are touches in Laura Warholic the master himself might have admired. One of my favorites comes at a crucial moment in the narrative. Eugene Eyestones, the hero of the novel, is about to meet his fate. The object of his Christmas mercy mission, the book’s title character, is not at home. He rings the bell, nobody answers. “He knocked hard. A few blackbirds flew off the roof, cawing kafka, kafka.” That daring piece of wordplay may not sound like much out of context but with 800-plus pages’ worth of accumulated (if embattled) sympathy for the character and the concept, you feel like cheering. And should you look back to the book’s five epigraphs, you’ll find the sentence’s DNA, or the other half of its heartbeat, in a quote from Kafka beginning, “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens.”

Human at the Center

After misrepresenting Laura Warholic as a mere creature of the comicbook context of its publisher (“the Fantagraphics cartoon oeuvre”), one high-profile reviewer claimed that “the only normal-looking character in the book is also a cartoon.” The reference is to Eyestones, whose only cartoonish feature is a pair of spectacles with bottle-glass-thick lenses. Otherwise, he is one of the most thoroughly human, fully realized characters you’ll ever encounter, as is the infinitely flawed, almost gloriously dysfunctional Laura herself, the ex-wife of Quink’s publisher Minot Warholic, who is a sexist of cosmically obnoxious proportions. Laura is Eyestone’s messy human challenge, at once muse and menace, subject and succubus, his demon and his despair; she’s also, among many other things, the 35-year-old bipolar child he regales with bedtime stories featuring O-Face, the Flatulent Bulgarian; Wally Nidiculous the Iowa Patriot; Resultan the Magician “who killed by a stare,” with tales set in places like Clockwatch Woods, “a copse of grey shapeless trees and bushes fatal to anyone who entered there.” Like Leopold Bloom, Eyestones not only “mutely craves to adore,” he thinks he can save a lost soul by revealing to her the riches of music and art and cinema. He’s a Quixotic teacher tutoring an impossible student who gives almost nothing back to him and rails at him whenever he shows even the most marginal interest in another female.

It’s sad to think of the appreciative readers who may be so put off by the novel’s outrages and excesses that they give up instead of following the course of the central relationship to its stunning denouement. That would be tantamount to letting the difficulties in Ulysses and the whimsical pedophilia in Lolita obscure what’s human between Leopold and Molly and Humbert and Lo. If you read Laura Warholic with the requisite patience, you will eventually realize that you’re committed to the book the way Eyestones is to Laura. And isn’t that what accomplished works of ficton strive for, to implicate readers, to make them accomplices in an ongoing act of imagination?

Ugly Beauty

Here’s an easy question. Who is likely to generate richer fictional material — a purely beautiful creature like Eyestone’s feminine ideal, Rapunzel Wisht, or a doomed, driven, Dostoevskian neurotic like Laura? With Laura, the possibilities are endless; the rhapsodies and fantasies inspired by Rapunzel are both more finite and more predictable.

“I love paradox,” says Eyestones near the end. “Then you love life,” his friend Duxbak, the “pretzel saint,” tells him after the desecration of Eyestone’s dream. When you see the front cover of Theroux’s novel, the fat fist of paradox hits you right between the eyes with a question so obvious a child might ask it: “Why does a book about an ugly woman show a beautiful woman on the cover?” Theroux may actually be playing on the obviousness of the question since the photo is of Evelyn Nesbit, the great beauty of the early 1900s, the Floradora Girl, model for Charles Dana Gibson’s pen and ink portrait, “The Eternal Question,” in which her hair is arranged in the form of a question mark. Since her identity is not revealed in the jacket copy, Theroux may have wanted to set readers looking for the answer. Look in that direction and you find a parallel between the fatal triangle she formed with Harry Thaw and Stanford White and the situation that proves doubly fatal in Laura Warholic.

If the front cover were to truly represent Laura, you’d need a Cubist derangement on the order of a Picasso portrait, or some hag out of a Mad comics nightmare, or, as Theroux often reminds us, a travesty of Barbara Stanwyck. Or, better, think Pop Art, action painting, or a piece of action sculpture. “In the narrow, ill-fitting clothes she wore she looked something like a fish frame.” Besides being bow-legged with hopelessly bad taste in clothes, Laura has a “listing shipboard gait” and “poultry-feet eyes.” Eyestones hates himself because he wants to love her and can’t: “But there was no hope for it. She had been poorly made, like an undercooked ceramic…. Her skin with its odd texture had the feel of pebble-dash-siding and the look of Andrew Wyeth-wood, dry and grainy and boardy and hard, a landscape of bleak winter with no sign of blossoms.”

Both Laura and Rapunzel are treated as objects, one to be worshipped and dreamed on, the other to be continually dissected, examined, and put unhappily back together again after the witty and merciless invention of myriad new, almost always unattractive metaphorical constructs in her name. Eyestone wants to see something worthy of adoration in Laura, and if the terms of his examination seem cruel, you know that he intends to hurt no one but himself. It’s a form of saintly self-abuse. You learn at the outset (page 9) that Eyestones loves women: “It was his firm belief that nothing in the world for pure loveliness could ever match the beauty of a woman. No vast mountain. No white soaring bird. No iridescent sunset.” At the same time, Eyestones the columnist (“the sexual intellectual”) publishes a long essay for Quink that will have righteous feminists climbing the walls. The offended parties wincing or howling as they throw the book aside (possibly pulling a few muscles in the process) would be better off telling themselves that 40-plus pages of vivid prose from an articulate adversary might actually be worth their attention. By the end, Eyestones sees a truth in Laura beyond the surface beauty of Rapunzel. Even before he’s crushed to discover what the lovely bakery girl does at a strip bar called the Purple Cucumber, he’s approaching the truth when a meditation on Laura and Rapunzel moves from an allusion to William James to a scene in the 1931 movie, Mata Hari, in which Greta Garbo tests the “limits of love” by asking her lover to profane something he considers sacred. As a result, Eyestones understands (and fears) that “the widest and deepest and most fulfilling emotions of love could be had, as often proved to be the case, only by intensifying ordeal.” So it goes: Rapunzel the ideal, Laura the ordeal. And it’s Laura’s book.

Laura Vents

One of the terms other than “novel” you could apply to Laura Warholic is “journey.” For one thing, the larger part of the Eyestone/Laura relationship develops in the course of their trip across and up and down the United States, Theroux’s rendition of zany, quirky roadside Americana performing a kind of symbiotic homage to the cross-country travels of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. On your way through this many-layered novel, it may help to keep in mind that it’s structured so as to allow you to, in effect, drive around chapters or episodes you may find dull, or repetitious, or offensive. Theroux might even have provided both a chronological table of contents and one based on subject matter or themes, the way Norman Mailer did in Advertisements for Myself. It’s also good to keep in mind some of the author’s sources and influences: Swift, Pope, Juvenal, Petrarch, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Poe, Melville, Joyce, Nabokov, E.M. Cioran, even Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (Laura offers enough exotic information to keep Ripley going for another 100 years), not to mention blues singers, and Hollywood stars of varying magnitude, from Marilyn Monroe to little known treasures like Joan Leslie. Any film buff and/or fancier of gay rhetoric will love the rhapsodies of Quink’s movie critic, R. Bangs Chasuble, which are at their funniest in the chapter entitled “Kid With a Replaceable Head.”

There’s hardly a corner of our culture that Theroux’s searchlight mind doesn’t sweep, including even heavy metal, punk rock, purple hair, and second-hand record emporiums. One of the rare times when former Cheap-Trick groupie Laura comes joyfully to life is to celebrate the glories of groupie life. (Too bad she ends up casting her lot with a band of losers called the Craven Slucks and their slobby middle-aged leader.) Laura is also funny and articulate when she nails the holier-and-more-enlightened-than-thou Eyestones with a machine-gun litany of his flaws. Because she’s such dismal company much of the time, it’s downright exhilarating when she cuts loose verbally.

Scientologists Beware

There should be a special warning label for Scientologists who respect L. Ron Hubbard’s dictum that any time you come upon a word you don’t know the meaning of, you have to look it up. It’s only an unofficial estimate, but given the quantity of obscure words teeming between the glossy black, seductively smooth covers of this book, my guess it would take a true devotee the better part of a year of constant reading to finish it.

Not to be Missed

One chapter you don’t want to miss is “What in Love or Sex is not Odd.” Go to the library (they have a copy) or your local bookstore and start reading it and my guess is that you’ll keep on until some sales clerk starts harrassing you. It’s like Bert Lahr and Lay’s potato chips: You can’t eat just one.

Finally, I’m embarrassed to admit that I have never read any of Alexander Theroux’s other books. I’d heard of Darconville’s Cat, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1981, but all I knew was that his brother was Paul Theroux, the poor man’s Graham Greene. The fact that I didn’t know any better and have yet to even see his other works of fiction, Three Wogs and An Adultery, suggests why the author of Laura Warholic has lined his many roads with so many IEDs for the literary establishment.

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