Sunday, May 31, 2009

Alexander Theroux's "An Adultery": Book Review

As with "Darconville's Cat," this novel also thrives on revenge by a jilted lover. Theroux reportedly based it on his own affair gone wrong, as he had his previous novel. Thematically, longing requited and then unrequited permeates "Laura Warholic," his novel nearly twenty years later, as well. Out of these three formidably dense and allusive fictions, "An Adultery" remains most conventional in style, although this dense, James-meets-Hawthorne character study (there's not much of a plot) does not make an easy read.

Theroux defends his "amplified" rhetorical style; shorn of the abundant allusions and arcane vocabulary of his other work, "An Adultery" chooses to focus on a Cape Cod setting, a romance between a louche artsy-craftsy dabbler and the narrator, Kit, a "serious" painter (strangely, few of his creations gain much description, although there's a painting called "An Adultery" of two people trying to reach out towards each other over an abyss that's powerfully evoked). Theroux, typically, sharpens his pace with satire, directed this time at boutique galleries in chi-chi clapboard resorts of his native Massachusetts. Usually, the tone's darker, like Kit's art.

Despair at clinging to an unworthy and shallow lover comprises the bulk of "Darconville's Cat" and, obliquely skewed, "Laura Warholic." The difference in "An Adultery" is that Farol Colorado ("red light" as one possible meaning) appears, in her lack of intellect, no less than Theroux's other female antagonists to be a curious object of affection, compared to such erudite and accomplished men who pursue such initially attractive but quickly superficial women. Why can't the men do any better?

I hesitate to equate art with life, but Theroux does establish a pattern in his novels. He's as misanthropic as misogynistic in the general sense, and his tone deepens and expands when at its best he relates the petty insecurities and passing fancies that any lovers create to shore up against eventual ruin. Yet, this story wants to demystify adultery, and take the romance out of affairs. It does that, but at such obsessive length over seemingly small matter-- Farol's never in Kit's league intellectually and in Theroux that alone's practically cause for damnation-- the novel does wear out its initial impact. It drags on, and drags us down into Kit's marathon bouts of feeling sorry for himself.

On the other hand, this swerve may be intentional: we see how annoying our own refusals to let go of a partner who's not meant for us or not good enough for us can be, when we get to eavesdrop for hundreds of pages on a lover's endless rationalizations, self-pity, machinations, and justifications. Perhaps Theroux has upended the romantic novel into a sorry set of how we must sound inside our heads when we, too, carry on pining for a worthless object of our affections. Inverted, this novel may be ingenious, if insufferable, for it forces us to listen to Kit, unable to stop whining for the woman he does not need while turning away from the one he should want.

Metaphors about guns, poison, variable equations, iron and stone, and vicious one-liners pepper the pages. Their target's always Farol, but there's also blowback. Kit, in a sense recalling not only James or Hawthorne but Poe, becomes an unreliable narrator, perhaps. He gets predictably caught in his own finagling, but when this happens, it's hard to feel the pity we are conventionally supposed to by such a dramatic fall. Kit's hubris appears to cheapen his appeal, and dims his luster in the eyes of Marina, his more worthy lover, whom he unaccountably abandons. She gains little presence in the narrator's mind compared to unworthy, sloppy Farol. While this may be, for a writer of such ability as Theroux, an intentionally distorted presentation of how love and lust can blind an intelligent man to what's good for him, it does not increase the reader's sympathy for Kit.

"Love murders the actual" in search of a dream and a whim. This sums up a long chronicle of breakups and reunions between the floundering couple, and for a writer of such ability and range as Theroux, it may satisfy more readers who have been daunted by his more word-witty excursions into other unhinged male minds. Yet, since I prefer those stories where Theroux can better display his awesome if overwhelming erudition with larger canvases and brighter hues to splash on all he sees and sneers, the relative hermeticism and psychological repetition of this relationship-based novel proved if as artistically controlled, less memorable. However, I stress that many readers may find this a better introduction to Theroux: the vitriol without the verve, perhaps, even if the narrator's another smart sourpuss scorning nearly everyone he meets in a fallen world and a stupid nation.

Therefore, it's more difficult here even than in "Darconville" or "Laura" to feel pity for the male supplicant whose favors are repulsed by a less-than-worthy woman. You cannot understand why Kit neglects Marina. Perhaps neither can he, but after four hundred intense pages of scrutiny of what turns out to be merely another affair gone wrong, this inability to connect appears a lot of ado about not much of a thing. You do feel sadness for Kit's failure, but I felt more for Marina's loss than his; hers proved to me the more tragic, for she did not deserve her fate. Another tragedy to add to a book full of the little savageries and small deceits that add up inexorably to moral failures and spiritual erosion.

(Posted to Amazon US 5-29-09. I've now reviewed all his major works on this blog and Amazon US over the past year. P.S. from 11-21-10 via Lisa Flowers a mutual fan of AT: Colin Marshall's Alexander Theroux primer. Marshall interviewed him at The Marketplace of Ideas radio site; you can link to it and a transcript via this fine overview.)

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