Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Alexander Theroux's "Laura Warholic": Book Review

Alexander Theroux's "Laura Warholic": Book Review.

A true sign of a good book? Finding read-aloud quotes on nearly every page. My wife had to endure quite a few, out of hundreds I kept to myself, chuckling or nodding. I rarely react to a novel this way. This massive, 880-page tome requires Joycean (strange that Joyce gains no mention here) erudition coupled with Pynchonesque ("Gravity's Rainbow" gets included without comment among a shelf of tawdry 50s pulp paperbacks) whimsy. My love of the former quality balances with my impatience for the latter indulgence, and luckily, as the narrative progresses, there's less stress on the outré or clever for its own sake.

However, as a reader of two out of three of Theroux's past novels (and I just checked out his out-of-print "Three Wogs" début from my library), I'm prepared for another few hundred pages of baffling Yiddish phrases, pop culture's detritus, adjectives perhaps not even the OED could elucidate, an essay on the folly of democracy, a fable, a catalogue of sexual oddities, and an exegesis on why the female prefers to channel her creativity into procreation rather than the fine arts. These intersperse with an already rambling, often minimally sketched plot. There's very little action in this novel, and it's nearly all in recollection. Instead, you rummage into the mental chaos, the endless associations of trains of thought, and whatever Theroux ventriloquizing through Eugene wants to complain or celebrate.

Once you get used to the rapid-fire banter, outrageously learned attacks by and against the power wielded by "Red Sea pedestrians," the pitch-perfect reproduction of jive patter, Afrocentric invective, lesbian barroom insults, and queer evocation of pithy put-downs supported by recited dialogue from half the "chick flicks" ever made in Tinseltown's golden age, you're into the mind, mostly, of Eugene Eyestones-- a pre-blog (the year may be unnamed but "5760" in the Jewish calendar gains a toast at what would be a party on Christmas 1999) columnist for a hipster Boston magazine as the "Sexual Intellectual." The novel roams widely and exhaustively through his own obsessions, and his own troubled relationship, dissected over tens of thousands of words, with Laura, ex-wife of the "Quink" magazine's editor. It's not a happy situation, but Eugene feels compelled out of perhaps genuine idealism more than easy pity, to try after years of effort and rejection to accept Laura as she is. It isn't easy. "And what am I to love if not the enigma"-- Eugene's typical plaint (536).

She's 36, beanpole skinny, pretty ugly, promiscuous, unwilling to commit to any job, philosophy of life, or search for meaning. Her scattered forays into rock-club groupiedom, her manic frenzies as she mimics whoever's her latest partner's musical and mental predilections, her depression and slovenly character: all gain merciless representation. Your ability to progress through so much detail may test your stamina. This book will take weeks, perhaps, to finish. But, in its last chapters, a sort of ironic grace manages to emerge, and poignant counterparts between the cruel, backbiting, ever-restless life of the literati, the trendy, and the inarticulate pundits who claim to know it all-- and a deeper, more contemplative stance, as only Duxbak (these names) achieves, move the climax and denouement into glimpsed profundity.

I imagine Theroux labored, given his last novel, "An Adultery," came out nearly two decades ago, long on this magnum opus. For a story so immersed in rock 'n' roll, current fads, and witty repartee, it also carries considerable intellectual heft inside its immense binding. It's excoriating of our lazy American culture. Eugene despises our paucity of invention, and our timidity in placing merit above charm. I figure it's Theroux using Eugene as a thinly (if at all) disguised mouthpiece for his own strong objections to our dumbed-down detritus, featured in Laura's vapidity. Eugene as his own character takes up 80% of the narratively filtered omniscient voice here, but Theroux does appear to blur his fictional character into his own philosophy and politics, from what I can tell. This resembles what we used to welcome as a "novel of ideas," more than a full-fledged novel. It's more, especially in the Quink scenes, akin to Menippean satire (one of the few classical allusions that doesn't gain a mention somewhere in these rarified columns of typeface).

There's reams of lost learning that any polymath will quail to understand, and I can imagine a companion to this text will one day appear to rival those for "Ulysses," or Pynchon's oeuvre. It does wander halfway though into a "Lolita-" type of cross-country road trip that I do not think the novel needed to incorporate. It's recounted haphazardly and the author seemed to tire of the conceit long before the Pacific was sighted. This may reflect Eugene and Laura's falling out during the trip, but it does vitiate rather than charge the central plot, such as it is, considerably.

Inevitably, typos do mar the achievement. For example: Colmer for the cemetery town in California of Colma or Hurst for Hearst. Pauline Kael was not a native of San Francisco, but she was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma; Air Supply and Morphine both are misclassified musically; the Transcontinental Railroad appears to be confused with the completion in "1864" of the Union Pacific section by the Chinese; a Carmelite tertiary is not "unvowed," exactly. I wish the editing had been tighter, given the abundant enthusiasm and apparent years of free time that Theroux must have committed to this, but the weight of this text does weigh upon any reader. We lack his mastery of trivia and we all may pale at keeping up with a very demanding, often entertaining, and seriously argued set of rants, raves, and razzing. The book did not need to be so lengthy; there's some repetition of tidbits, and while particular elements find resolution by the conclusion, you do sense the author's pouring out onto the page information and facts and opinions for their own sake, rather than consistently in the service of a coherent, readable, and rewarding few dozen hours that it will require of even the speediest and smartest reader. Theroux via Eugene never lets you forget he's brainier than you will ever be. I admire such ambition, but I do wonder at his aloof muse.

The slips I cited may be forgivable in a book with thousands of such references, and the daunting range of Theroux knows few rivals in American prose. He may remind you of a Jeopardy tournament winner, combined with a classics major, a fiddler, a memorizer of past gems now dimmed from English verse, a vinyl junkie, a lexicographical obsessive, and an strenuous theologian. Not to mention somebody who's hung out in lots of bars catering to all sexual preferences, musical selections, and ethnic alliances.

"When doesn't more mean worse?" It's asked more than once by Eugene. The gale force assault of this novel may dissuade you, but look up the first chapter at the publisher's site, see if you like it, and take it from there. It's an investment in time and energy, but it's a quite a good read for all its excess and enthusiasms. It teaches you forgiveness, and beneath the verbal pyrotechnics, thought and care rest.

(Photo of Evelyn Nesbit; one of two covers extant for this novel. Posted to Amazon US today. P.S. 11-4-2011: thanks to fellow Therouxite Lisa Flowers for this link to Mark Burstein's 2010 remarks on the novel's editorial shortcomings.

She posted this reaction to LW on FB: There are two categories in my head as I read: Foliage & Excess Leaves (as if with a sickle-as-rake & a succession of trash bags) and Side-splitting Brilliance. The hours of necessary manual labor often make me too tired to enjoy the latter; albeit with incontestable gems dancing in my head, all I want at the end of a session with this book is a hot shower & a massage. It's a question of ego gone wild with tendrils.)

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