Book Review: “Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes” — Appreciation for an Overlooked Modern Master

By Greg Gerke

This kind of informed appreciation of a much-maligned writer of brilliance is a treasured relief.

Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes by Steve Moore. Zerogram Press, 264 pages, $19.95.

If writers of distinction are lucky, they will have a perceptive critic latch onto them and speak, not of their themes or ideologies, but of their literary power. Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett all had Hugh Kenner. Henry James had many suitors, but R.P. Blackmur was plugged into James’s mysterious “country of blue” better than any. Steven Moore is already the most prominent William Gaddis scholar in the world, but his latest book, Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, will forever intertwine his name with the much-maligned and overlooked Alexander Theroux, age 81, whose four incomparable novels, Three Wogs, Darconville’s Cat, An Adultery, and Laura Warholic, are, incredibly, out of print.

This modern-day master, whose essays and criticism also contain a rich bounty of erudite thought and scintillating language, is reputed to reside in Cape Cod with a few small mountains of unpublished manuscripts. Put them together with the 17 published works (four of which are 700 pages or more) and you have an oeuvre that Moore calls “a gigantic iceberg of writing.” Theroux is the opposite of today’s compunctionless publicist/writer, a species eager for attention. He chooses to withhold himself from public view out of spite for the US literary industrial complex. Theroux is on record as saying, “I’m convinced that most editors, of course, couldn’t tell a good manuscript from a box of shingles.” He also recently admitted that his writing is too politically incorrect for many publishers.

A Fan’s Notes is an apt subtitle to this book, given that it sprouted from a fan letter Moore sent to Theroux after Darconville’s Cat was published in 1981. The volume is an adulatory, but not fawning, account of Theroux’s writing life, with their writer/critic relationship looming large; Moore was the copy editor (gratis) during most of the tortuous history of Theroux’s last novel, Laura Warholic. The critic gives an insider’s account of that six-year odyssey, which he exited before the volume came out from Fantagraphics Books. There are details here about the real life woman who inspired the eponymous character in a novel that began in the neighborhood of 600 pages and grew to 878. Moore evaluates the editorial changes he oversaw, judging some to be good and others mere verbiage. An example of the latter: “He had not seen her since Thanksgiving” became “He reflected that he had not in fact seen her since Thanksgiving.” Moore also revels in the single-minded accomplishments that are Three Wogs and Darconville’s Cat, citing Roland Barthes’s words from The Pleasure of Text — which articulates the quintessence of Theroux’s enterprise:

the author (the reader) seems to say to them: I love you all (words, phrases, sentences, adjectives, discontinuities: pell-mell: signs and mirages of objects which they represent); a kind of Franciscanism invites all words to perch, to flock, to fly off again: a marbled, iridescent text; we are gorged with language, like children who are never refused anything or scolded for anything or, even worse, “permitted” anything.

After this quote, Moore features a paragraph from Darconville’s Cat, voiced by the grandiloquent misogynist with satanic overtones, Dr. Abel Crucifer, who should at least be as infamous as Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He is much more verbally terrifying: “Primal innocence?… Dwale and delusion! So laws were grafted. Lawcraft? Sheepcraft! I won’t bore you with a history of all its agathokakological claptrap, Darconville…” Giving the passage a close reading, Moore searches out words in the OED, locates allusions to one of John Milton’s religious pamphlets, and digs up other sources, finally concluding that Theroux uses “an arsenal of rhetorical devices to move the paragraph from its calm forensic opening to its wrathful, Old Testament conclusion.”

Moore also devotes chapters to Theroux’s poems, stories, and fables as well as to his critical writings. There is also a section on the relationship and rivalry Alexander has with his brother, Paul, the more popular scribbler. Examining the least respected of Theroux’s modes (poetry), Moore finds the work uneven, though he uncovers occasional jewels. As a poet, Theroux is out of step with the free-verse soliloquies popular today, both in terms of  subject matter (real-life figures, from Thoreau to Amelia Earhart) and rhymed meter. But Theroux has mined his verse for the fiction; Moore points out how a sketchpad poem focused on an Egon Schiele painting reappears in Laura Warholic as an appetizing sentence. The arcana and naming and listing on display in the fiction — one chapter in Darconville’s Cat includes nine pages of misogynistic books, some of the titles made up — takes different forms. Theroux has written two books that meditate on colors (novella-length essays on the three primary colors and the three secondary colors) as well as The Grammar of Rock and Einstein Beets, about pop lyrics and food facts, respectively. They comprise Moore’s least favorite part of Theroux’s output.

“The Novelist as Critic” section is another delight. It scrupulously explores Theroux’s early learning, including a PhD dissertation on the language of Beckett and the epistemology of words. (In it, Theroux notes “a veil spun by language which shrouds the mind from reality.”) His obsession with language shapes his fiction-making. “Theroux Metaphrastes” is the most important essay the author ever wrote, argues Moore, because it is a statement of purpose on his amplification — amplified, not inflated — writing style, in the manner of Burton, Rabelais, and Sterne, written in response to a Diane Johnson review criticizing Theroux’s abundant stylings in Three Wogs. Given that the novelist has reviewed over 100 books, Moore’s rundown of the writers he critiqued provides a good overview of the US literary world from the ’80s until roughly 2010. Moore skillfully surveys the egos on display, and not only that of the sometimes rebarbative Theroux (jilted by a young woman he wanted to marry, the writer “vowed to avenge himself in a novel”—Darconville’s Cat; similar triggering events inspired An Adultery and Laura Warholic). There are also searching looks at Theroux’s brother Paul, Camille Paglia, and V.S. Naipaul. Moore also details Theroux’s wrestling matches with the popular as well as critical achievement of Thomas Pynchon, a contemporary. There are examples of Theroux acidic takedowns (“Another gaffe can be found in Gravity’s Rainbow…”) as well as his celebrations (“one of the most original minds in all of American letters…”).

The bibliography of Theroux’s various publications is much needed because it seems that the writer isn’t to let any more of his manuscripts be published. Owing to the power of the Internet, one can easily find a number of pieces, including a spate of nonfiction works published in Esquire from 1973 to 1976. The titles include “The Sissy,” “The Shrink,” and “Want Me? It’ll Cost You!” The last is an essay on the lobster that might trump David Foster Wallace’s for most lexical delights in a magazine piece on crustaceans.

It’s fitting that when I think of our modern bard Theroux, who, in writing Darconville’s Cat, employed a number of words that hadn’t been used for 400 years, I use the words of the original Bard for the former’s living epitaph: “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Moore has carried out his admirable mission of homage wonderfully, entertainingly, and decisively. It’s a kinder, and much more truthful, type of criticism than we are used to in our bile-filled times — this kind of informed appreciation is a treasured relief.

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, the Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, a collection of short stories, were both published by Splice in the Autumn of 2019. Zerogram Press will release a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021.

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