Thursday, September 18, 2008

Alexander Theroux's "Three Wogs": Book Review.

The few reviews (on Amazon, where this was posted today) of Theroux's début, three novellas around the central theme of caricatured English people's exaggerated prejudice against, in turn, an equally cartoonish yet more sympathetically delineated Chinese, Indian, and African immigrant, have been positive, yet this trilogy needs more than the two sentences the previous readers have given it to account for its charm. Written in London during his ex-pat period (as with his brother Paul), Theroux's a convoluted stylist in these period pieces.

Compared to LW, and his other novels "Darconville's Cat" and "An Adultery," Theroux already has achieved at the start the qualities of his mature prose: a delight in insults, trivia, and dialogue; ideas spinning about wildly half in the indirect first-person ravings of his protagonists, half through a coolly omniscient, mocking, deflating voice; a distrust of systems, leaders, and cant; a healthy skepticism for the collective rather than the eccentric holdout; a sympathy for the compassionate, spiritual, and sensitive trampled by our modern cruelties.

As I recently finished his massive novel "Laura Warholic," (also reviewed by me on Amazon US and on my blog this month), returning to his first fiction published thirty-seven years before shows that for a young writer-- he was barely into his thirties when he finished TW-- I marvel how he'd already managed to cloak himself in the mantle of such eminent men of letters as Robert Burton, Rabelais, Sterne, Georges Perec, Joyce, and Cervantes. There's little patience among lazy readers today, as Theroux has lamented, for such vastly learned, baffingly stocked, and endlessly witty, cleverly cruel, and downright funny satire as he favors. By his intelligence, as with his predecessors, he may be doomed to a few discerning aesthetes, but better this than the best-selling rabble. Still, I do hope he's rewarded soon with his genius grant.

Aphoristic, barbed, and entertaining: he combines mock-heroic lists, waspish social commentary, theological minutiae, and cultural takes that upend Orientalism in a manner much more engrossing than some post-colonial critic's monograph. I wonder how many disciples of Edward Said have overcome their revulsion at this collection's title and actually studied this triptych? They'd learn a lot from Theroux's insights.

You do have to put up with Dickensian names, and Pynchonesque earnestness. To me, this remains a slight distraction that interferes a bit with my total immersion. I like his outrageousness, but it can be slightly wearing by its repetition. His books are best enjoyed a few pages at a time, so you can savor and re-read passages, but his plots, rambling as they are, by their carefully staged climaxes can prove unputdownable. Theroux always likes to exaggerate; no wonder he likes the 19c political cartoonist Thomas Nast. His send-ups of how Westerners hear foreigners mangle English appear double-edged: they manage to show up our own prejudices as well as make us smile with the garbled pronunciations and syntactical contortions. A PC-addled academic may frown, but the rest of us will probably chuckle often at both the migrant and the settled, as they contend for the dubiously honorific title of British subject.

Yunnum Fun, in the first story, "Miss Proby gets hers," carries out an act of cunning revenge against the aghast bluehaired snoop who hates him. Fun's driven to act out of being driven nearly mad by the miss. Here's a typical observation:
"The urge for Chinese food is always unpredictable: famous for no occasion, standard fare for no holiday, and the constant as to demand is either whim, the needy plebescite of instantly famished drunks, or pregnancy. Any supply-demand ratio, borne of such flux, can do nothing but annoy and create, even in the genetically silent, a hysteria etched in and bordered by a quietude that could only be termed pathological." (27)

Elsewhere, this aside shows Theroux's clever truth in the smallest detail: Miss P. takes into the movies "the sweet narcotic of three Cadbury's Fruit-and-Nut bars, the innutritious artillery of the easily appeased." (46) While there's a few passages that he fumbles, these prove rare. Theroux labors to avoid cliché and his invention can be forgiven its rare missteps in pursuit of originality, an achievement rare for today's writers so far along in the well-trodden course of English prose.

The second tale, "Childe Roland," takes nothing I can see from Robert Browning's poem, but in its encounter between disaffected lout Roland McGuffey and first a hapless seller of ice cream and then Dilip, a refugee from India whom Roland meets in a train station where the Englishman lazily pretends to work washing carriages, there's poignancy. Theroux excels in descriptions, too long to excerpt, that reveal partitioned India, its streets and sounds and textures, marvelously, compared with dreary London.

Finally, in a tale more eccentrically English in the way of Saki on opium, or Wodehouse gone on a bender, "The Wife of God" turns to the clerical fussiness of domesticated rigidity that's upended when Cyril, choirmaster despised and courted alternately by the improbably named Rev. Which Therefore, asks for pre-marital counsel before he weds another African emigré, his ballerina love. This story's more in the tradition of Baron Corvo or Belloc, if they were chemically deranged, perhaps.

So, there's three stories that a few readers who find this review may find rewarding. An acquired taste, but for some, a delectable one. As all of Theroux's fiction except LW languish out of print, his books may take some tracking down, but the chase will end in pleasure, moral instruction, richly ornamented periodic sentences, and a need to go to your OED.

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