Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alexander Theroux's "The Primary Colors": Book Review

He's one of my favorite writers (recently I reviewed on Amazon US and my blog here "Laura Warholic," his latest novel and "Three Wogs," his earliest fiction) but he's certainly sui generis. I have no idea how, especially pre-Internet 1996 and pre-search engines, he compiled the thousands of allusions, citations, song lyrics, art works, and trivia that accumulate here to explore blue, yellow, and red. His prose style here, unlike his fiction, may be either more accessible or less cohesive for his readers, but if they've enjoyed his novels, they'll welcome these brief, but densely packed, essays.

He raises, of course, many more questions than even he answers. And he knows a lot, such that you'll feel inept by comparison; a common reaction perhaps to encountering his formidably erudite prose. Still, if you want a counterblast to the usual piddle that passes for thought, he'll prove rewarding. As with all his books, it's not to be dashed through, but better savored for its style and contemplated for its observations.

Here's a few that struck me. Blue and green often mix in most languages; Theroux wonders if this may be due to a very recent development of our retinal cones that perceive blue. I'm curious if recent genetics can solve this crux. Also, colors enter most languages in the same order: first black and white, then red, and then either green or yellow followed by the other. The fifth color separates the third and fourth, resulting in blue. There's no footnotes or sources given, for if there were it'd be equal to the text itself easily. But, I wish I could find out from where Theroux piled up such arcana.

On pp. 102-03, for example, he goes in one paragraph from yellow eyes in Frankenstein to a Dickens character, Leon Trotsky about Stalin, Arab boys, a film based on Balzac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, a woman in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," another in a García Márquez tale, Sam Spade, and ends with "the Alaskan Gray Wolf, staring directly at you."

The yellow chapter, compared to the red and blue, appears more bilious and more disturbing, and Theroux seems to share in that color's enigma. (One minor correction on pg. 120: Christo's artistic display of yellow umbrellas "on a landscape in California" appeared not in 1984 but in October, 1991. Blue ones in Japan were unveiled concurrently.) Still, my favorite sentence is here: "And is there not a flow in the streaming tresses of willow trees, in the sweep of their thin xiphoidal leaves blowing in the wind, as delicate as Veronica Lake's aureoline hair?" (138-39)

Although the blue section appears to solve any question and hundreds more I may have had about that color, I still did not find a direct reference to why the music's so called, except for an implication that depression matches this shade. I had thought there was a connection between the indigo-picking slaves and their hands, stained with the plant, as they played and sang sad music.

But, that's not found, and neither is, except again indirectly through Eva Péron, any explanation of the association of lipstick with a particular amorous act in ancient Egypt by women who painted their mouths so! I guess we all end this book with our own further suppositions, half-recalled references, and ideas sparked by such a rich abundance of speculation, memory, and information about what we see all around us but rarely, I reckon, record with Theroux's diligence.

No comments: