Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alexander Theroux's "Einstein's Beets": Book Review

My wife tells me she used to think I was just a jerk (I censor her chosen noun here) when I ate foods that contorted my face, tingled my palate, or tasted like aluminum foil. Respectively, my reactions to lettuce, cheese, and lettuce again may, I learned only when our firstborn reported similar stimuli, be attributed to "sensory integration disorder." But for my parents, long before this euphemism was coined for insurance coding and "wellness" profits, no excuse sufficed. Dinner table emptied of Mom, Dad, and Sis, I had to sit until I had choked down that liver hunk or gulped canned cold beets.

That titular taproot and its hirsute hater appear on page 131 of what sprawls as the definitive compendium for this and thousands of digestive or devouring ills. It's probable it is the first and last word on the subject. As my testimony affirms, there may be a marginal but experienced readership for this frenetic inquiry. This "examination of food phobias" spews out small type, nearing 800 pages.

Alexander Theroux exemplifies the maximal style. He inflates what he thunders about, not always heeding a self-editor or any editor. He begins to repeat himself by page 44; he uses tellingly the word "cliché" three times in a single page. You'll toss this pulp chunk aside, senses stunned by stimulation's binge and purge, or you'll dip in and out, as with salsa. If you can't stand salsa, you may like fondue.

For he's an acquired taste. I've enjoyed his curmudgeonly narratives. Starting in 1972, Three Wogs' small trio of eccentrics rambled about xenophobic London. Allowing a detour past his eerily straightforward and perhaps semi-autobiographical exploration of An Adultery, his picaresque misfits in Darconville's Cat and Laura Warholic pleased critics and revived his audience. Savage Menippean satire continued as two genial gripes followed, one on Estonia, one on rock lyrics. Neither limited itself to its proffered topic. Both digressed; he ranted. Theroux found many foes, but kept a few fans.

These fans were let down by Theroux's typos and lapses of fact in his post-millennial texts published by Fantagraphics. As a sponsor of Theroux's didactic labor, that Seattle-based comics-themed press earns gratitude. Yet we few fans who stocked our shelf with enough room for his hefty harangues wondered why one so damning of others' follies (or his patron) fell short when it came to his errors. My advance copy of Einstein's Beets was delayed for galley scrutiny, an encouraging portent for all. However, no documentation assists the curious. Again, agape readers must trust Theroux's veracity.

If Theroux had repeated the minimalist recipe concocted for his twinned collections The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors, Einstein's Beets could cut down to bite-size bits. Although claims of plagiarism tainted the Colors, the preparation routine Theroux prefers exposes him to memory's slips. For his books may take decades to emerge, embedded in myriad thoughts. He jots down factoids or snippets. These stack up; he sorts them by sortilege hidden at least to this reviewer. Whether Estonia or lyrics, colors or bons mots, he arranges ideas into voluble and askew portions.

Out of this accumulation, Theroux defies any trim-down resolutions. He creates a tetchy giant. It rises from his means of pen-driven, diligently dogged production. He heaps lore into garrulous, odd, and daunting rhetorical excess between ever-expanding covers, Early in Einstein's Beets, about its aims he propounds: "The examination of a person this way is simultaneously a study of one's hungers, one's point of view, one's quirks, and a very revealing catalogue of an individual's tolerance level, as much as an index of hostility." Reflecting on a typically arcane and loopy theory, set forth by one obscurity, Hans Eysenck, a century ago, Theroux admits: "It sounds a bit of a dog's dinner to me, a random and vague piling together of elements, but I suppose it offers something to think about."

The patient reader will glean, similarly, much to ponder. For instance, we eat 144,000 lbs. of food, at least during an average life span. Jewish dietary laws generate the theological concept of a "scandal of peculiarity," that the creator of the universe fusses over blood spots in eggs. Lincoln liked bacon.

These varieties of gustatory experience proliferate. We may satisfy a sense but then spurn its satisfaction. Attraction and repulsion contending as we consume spurs Theroux to recite a litany of disturbing and disgusting reactions to eating, drinking, and digesting. But he ends this, as he had his mock-epic on Estonian ego, with a sudden, contemplative coda. This time, the former Trappist novice and formidable gadfly summons up three muses. Plato, Wilde, and Jesus consider the discipline of the barrier between ourselves and what we grasp or gobble. Their forgotten notion is that of "hindrance."

Prepare for the unexpected, excavated by erudition, by way of this mercurial mentality of Theroux. "We are also what we don't eat." Theroux flips bromides as he goads us. This massive compendium, like a smorgasbord, must be wisely sampled gingerly. Too much at one sitting will stupefy. Hundreds crowd this book, forgotten alongside famed. An index assists the stumped or the curious. Echoing Thomas Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy nearly four centuries past, this surrounds us as an omnium gatherum. It bounds beyond its subject. It rests beside Theroux' non-fiction forays, in its own niche.

A hodge-podge, if not a dog's dinner, reminds us of that proverbial pot, into which any foodstuff may simmer. If one nibbles, one savors Theroux's slumgullion stew. His teeming potluck, as verbal feast, stirs up for me precedents. Around campfires, people for millennia have bent to eat. Eventually at such sites, dance and worship began. Folk memory may account for holy sacrifice or blood ritual.

"Strangeness is the thrown shadow of food aversions." These innate, primordial energies that excite us persist. We compete with all creatures, who may retreat to imbibe and masticate. Einstein's Beets digs up animal and spiritual drives that lure us to gorge and stir us to gag. Alexander Theroux's eager exploration of this compulsion concocts a subject suited for our foodie, fast-food, gluten-free, all-you-can-eat, prix fixe, happy hour, organic-this, vegan-that, voracious diet-doomed appetites. (As Alexander Theroux's Einstein's Beets Is an Acquired Taste. 5-1-17 PopMatters. All but para. 1 to Amazon US 5-23-17)

No comments: