Thursday, 28 May 2015

They have to blow out candles or break saucers so people will believe they’re not lying, the sneaks: Alexander Theroux’s pretexts for delicious prose

When Three Wogs, his first novel, came out Alexander Theroux immediately got into the sort of foofaraw that continues to plague him to this day. First published in 1972, three years later the author added an essay to a second edition called “Theroux Metaphrastes,” wherein he defended himself from an ungenerous caitiff of a reviewer who castigated his complex syntax. The recalcitrant sentences was this: “The sky above was the color of pewter: toward it no one looked, for it no one cared. The utter impossibility of alteration, determined through centuries of unquizzical resignation and fortified by a trust in the fancy of a capable God, makes of the grey day in London an inexorability that translates into the accepted gratitude of a traditional pain known to an untraditional pleasure not.” Like Laocoön and His Sons, that magnificent Roman statue praised by Pliny the Elder, considered lost for centuries and rediscovered in 1506 at a vineyard excavation witnessed by Michelangelo himself, Theroux’s sentence is long, twisted and elegant. To the goop who failed to appreciate its beauty, Theroux provided a version more congenial to this withered dendrites – “The English can’t change their rainy weather, and so they accept it.” – but it wasn’t the same: it was too direct, too succinct, too journalistic. “An apologetics here can’t be out of order,” he wrote in the essay, “especially as I am repeatedly called upon to apologize for such elegances: highly inflected, whorled like mussel shells, pregnant with glosses and addenda. It was admired as a grace in the Middle Ages, a colophon of wit, to use as many words, artfully, to say as little as possible.” This, what he calls amplificatio, is at the heart of his style: extravagant, wordy, inventive, erudite and insubstantial.

These traits abound in the three novellas that constitute Three Wogs. Nothing but themes link them: a Chinese shopkeeper is driven mad with abuse by an intolerant woman; a British yob has a menacing encounter with an Indian Jain at a train station; and a homosexual British Reverend, infatuated with an African singer, tries to dissuade him from marrying his fiancée (this reverend, by the way, talks and thinks like a prototype of Dr. Crucifer). However I hesitate to diminish Theroux’s book by saying it’s about racial conflicts and stereotypes. Caricature replaces psychology, subtlety wanders sickly and despondent like the last member of a dying species. Analyses at the root of racism take a back seat to the overblown behavior of its cast of idiotic zealots. The plots march towards predictable conflicts, and their outcomes vary all but little. Ah, but these are novellas wherein each page defies you not to underline a gorgeous, outstanding bit. The Caucasian characters’ hatred for foreigners pale before Theroux’s contempt for the cliché and the familiar sentence.

Let’s have a look at “Mrs. Proby Gets Hers” and leave the others for another day. Thematically, narratively, it’s a very basic novella: Mrs. Proby, a widow, lives in the same building as a Chinese shopkeeper, Mr. Yunnum Fun, a modest, well-behaved “dot of a man.” She detests him and abuses him; he gets fed up and plots her murder. He kills her, and the novella ends. But book reviewing etiquette obliges me to mention that across its 49 pages important themes abound (according to the verso), no doubt as important as they’re easily reduced to simple maxims: treat others with respect; be tolerant; I think I even spotted a metaphor for neocolonialism. And yet, as so often happens, the book’s tone traduces whatever respectability the verso tries to give it. We open its covers and enter the zone of heavy satire. One glimpse at Mrs. Proby and know she’s not just racist, she’s implausibly racist – she breathes racism, speaks racism, thinks racism, reminisces racism every waking moment of her wog-hating existence. Her friends are racist, so are their conversations. She’s boldly racist in the face of non-white people. She’s that kind of racist who only exists in fiction, the kind who says things like “I don’t want to see yellows or browns or purples, I want mine” as if they were the most ordinary chitchat. She complains about the “immigration problem” and maintains that “Voluntary Repatriation was the answer. One had to be purblind not to see that.” And of course she’s a complete nincompoop. We know that because, besides her demented outbursts, she constantly relies on clichés. “A subtle Asiatic, she could never forget, was a horse of a different colour, a Greek bearing gifts, a fly in the ointment, and an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” In a novella like this clichés stand out like a volcanic eruption. But whereas in other books they’re merely laziness, here they’re character building. “Once burned, twice shy, they say. Mark me well, we know what you’re about, too, and you are not, you heard me just say not, pulling the wool over anybody’s sheep’s clothing.”  

No, with such a bombastic character this is definitely not the ideal vehicle for profound explorations of sensitive topics.

Obviously this makes Mrs Proby a hilarious and memorable character. The novella opens with her screaming at a Fu Manchu movie – film stereotypes, get it? –  leaving the cinema and returning to Brompton Road, a bulwark of whiteness were it not for the Chinese neighbor downstairs. Just moments later she’s chatting over tea with her equally racist friend, Mrs. Culliname. “The cinema today is different. So much is, isn’t?” she asks. “The picture I saw was about a garage mechanic and another git, excuse me, but git he was, in a plastic suit, who spent all their time taking drugs and forcing grammar-school youngsters to take baths with them. Now, really, I blame the Queen.” Too much change, too much promiscuity. “We never had any trouble, mind you, until America began to send over shipfuls of dirty books and whole potloads of those smouldering films with toreadors, enormous b-e-d-s (…) and girls in masks and open dust-coats down in Florida in the sunshine, winking at the plumber who came there just because and is supposedly fixing the dip-bulb in the w.c., but we know better, dear, and I wish we didn’t, I wish we did not,” says Mrs. Culliname. Oh, look, old people unable to get on with the times? How new and different! Never saw that situation in books before.

Together, they do all the boring things old British ladies do together, especially pestering innocent people. On a trip to a museum they see a foreigner, a Thai, whom they suspect is masturbating in front of an “elongated, sensual sculpture” and promptly run for the guard to inform him. Besides Mrs. Culliname, Mrs. Proby hangs around with a bunch of moronic middle-aged women. She and her friends meet “together in the pub for what they called a ‘hello’ but what was, in fact, a masterful if somewhat dirty coup de jarnac which squeaked out platitudes and shibboleths and made the day the day.” Like Mrs. Proby, they speak in clichés and stock phrases. Theroux’s merciless about ridiculing characters who speak in sentences not written by Theroux. “Mrs. Shoe finished her Babycham and looked at Mrs. Proby with chagrin. ‘No, I suppose you’re right. One can’t mix leaves with grass and come up with a forest.’ It was something she remembered she read, she thought, in Samuel Smile’s Self-Help or possibly Eliza Cook’s I’m Afloat.” Mrs. Shoe, by the way, also occasions the laugh-out-loud scene of the novella: “’Life,’ replied Mrs. Shoe thinking of the Middle Ages, ‘is different than before, it really is.’”

It’s extraordinary how difficult it is to say anything meaningful or interesting about a novel about prejudice and intolerance. The sheer effort to pretend there’s anything profound or important to say about this book just because it’s about racism. How many mediocre books get puffed up because of their topical topics? Its messages are so obvious they could be delivered via a 3-minute pop song. Ultimately what makes Three Wogs superb is the language, the way Theroux imbues the most ordinary thing with his vision. For instance a physical and mental description. “Mrs. Culliname had the pinched comic face of Houdon’s marble of Voltaire, a sort of thin, wide-mouthed suffragist who existed on an ounce of biscuits, the odd celery heart, and, as well, the persistent need to support and maintain ever fiscal sanity in Britain, a brave and full-time concern. She was the kind of woman who seemed to be always holding back a constant urge to knit, the type of person who believe that the statement, ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Gets Going,’ was an utterance of the highest magnitude, its speaker invariably the impresario of a dreamland that alone could reshape the world and which surpassed, making quite superfluous, every single volume of philosophy, law, science, theology, literature, and general humanity through the long history of mankind, down to the last.” Hell, this is the verve you want to put in every character description! It gets better: Mrs. Culliname’s character is “basically that of blotting paper: passive, receptive, and ready for the strangest of Rorschachs, notwithstanding those patterns of peculiarity soaked up by the thrust and imposition of Mrs. Proby’s iron will and irrevocable opinion.” But can Theroux compare to something even more random than blotting paper? Mrs. Proby has “[a] blocky, cuboid head, faced in pink and white and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry, surmounted a body that made Mrs. Prody lool like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus.” Books on racial conflict come and go, but this is one description for the ages!

Theroux’s talent can show itself just in the description of a daily ritual like the five o’clock tea: “It was high tea: the perfervid ritual in England which daily sweetens the ambiance of the discriminately invited and that nothing short of barratry, a provoked shaft of lightning, the King’s enemies, or an act of God could ever hope to bring to an end.” It can be the fears and fantasies of the characters: “I’m afraid to go out, Mrs. Culliname. Even with my Weenie. I mean, if he should stop to go doo-doo by a post, who’s to guarantee some big hairy thing in a mask won’t come flashing out of a doorway and do me god-knows-what kind of brain damage, bash me with a cosh he might, snatch me handbag, even tamper about down here and there in the you know.” It can be a simple sentence like this: “The ladies understood each other, in the careful way that ladies do once they understand each other.” Don’t we all understand exactly what this means?

Having read Darconville’s Cat before this, I knew Theroux wasn’t going to write something as vulgar as a book about intolerance; there are Pulitzer winners for that. I knew, and wasn’t disappointed, that I’d derive most of the pleasure from seeing how language-allegro he could go with the material, what absurd thing he’d next put in his character’s mouths and brains. And he works hard to constantly top himself:

“In those days, England had a voice in the world, people could understand the lyrics of songs, and there were no Chinese. Changes, however, had come about and had created in her a compulsion for the laudator temporis acti reminiscence, which excluded, perforce, the total existence of both a certain Chinaman and any capacity in him that might try to prove otherwise.”

“Mrs. Proby never could come to terms with the fact that Indians, Chinese, or Blacks even bothered to get on boats and travel thousands and thousands of miles to England – eating only peas and peppercorn or playing mah-jongg or jacks in steerage with all the chickens – when they should have known that the day would certainly come when people would be jumping off into the ocean for want of room, run screaming off into the Highlands for a gulp of air, or begin selling their hair just to keep alive. That was why Mrs. Proby always met Mrs. Culliname at the door saying, ‘Cor, good to see a human face.’”

“Islanders had to know what to eat, because at any minute the Communists, those hoof-footed dongs from the primeval wastes who live only on smudgy black aerated bread and complaints, would be swimming around the whole nation with corking and nets in their mouths, sealing Great Britain off from the rest of the world, and forcing everyone into a diet of cowpats, the lesser sage, and ounces of mastic.”

“They eat queer dishes, write upside down, and whatnot. Peddler’s French on the one hand, St. Giles’s Greek on the other. They say they can’t even swear an oath on the Good Lord’s Bible in the courts; they have to blow out candles or break saucers so people will believe they’re not lying, the sneaks. Now, you see, who gains?”

Almost entirely quotable, this novel!

Obviously Mr. Yunnum Fun is better treated, as befits the tropes of the genre. He arrives from China as a boy, sent by his father to escape civil war and poverty. “Once in Hong Kong, Yunnum Fun’s father walked his son to the crowded dock, handed him a yellow felt sack of coins and a letter, and pointed off toward a rusty steamship, towards the sea, toward England the West.” He boards the boat and never sees his father and China again. In England he lives a low-key existence. “As the years passed, he saved his money, avoided ridicule, dodged flung objects, and watched. Yunnum Fun always watched. But, as has been pointed out, the situation which finds the human race incommodiously jammed cheek-to-jowl, shack-to-shingle, bothered no one less than the small ageless merchant, émigré, exile.” Silently he endures abuse. “Often, couples and customers would come into the store and, to amuse each other,  would intentionally confuse, muffling a giggle, the letters L and R. And others would pass him in the street, mime a shuffle and toss off a remark or two, so that after a period of years Yunnum Fun found that he was easily able to combine and permute a series of about two laundry jokes, none of which he found comic, all of which he heard.” But after an altercation in the shop, he decides to kill Mrs. Proby. “Mrs. Proby had tired Yunnum Fun for three long years now. And because of her, for three long years, Yunnum Fun often found himself bumping around his shop in the dark late at night, drooling, shouting, and almost blind fro the powerful bottles of samshoo he had drunk as a refuge from his tribulations.” So he follows her to a cinema, where she resumes watching the Fu Manchu movie, and kills her with a blowgun, because that’s what three-dimensional, psychologically complex characters do in Serious Literature.

If my review didn’t make it clear, this novel is a masterpiece. Seldom do I read literature that is so unapologetically literary. An even-handed, sober tone would have ruined what makes this novel so special. Like the best of writers, Theroux uses theme as excuse for language. Whatever message this book could have to say, it can be said in three or four sentences. The real motive is the freedom it allows Theroux to go bonkers, to be excessive, to be unpredictable. In each deranged diatribe you could sense him thinking to himself, “How can I make this even kookier?” Three Wogs is a great comical novel, in the honorable tradition of laughing at a problem until it goes away. Except it won’t, because people are stupid and it’s probably pointless trying to look for reasons for behavior that is as ancient as mankind itself. A sensible, meditative, well-balanced treatment of racism, intolerance and atavism will not be found here, and that’s a blessing; there’s non-fiction for that. Here there’s mostly pretext for a verbal Grand Guignol. It’s a masterpiece of excess, a baroque comedy, the type of novel that only shows up once in a decade. Last time it showed up was in 1997. But that this novel has been out of print ever since shouldn’t depress readers: I hear Knausgard’s 4th volume of My Struggle has come out in English at last, Knausgard, that genial wordsmith, that juggler of words who picks up an ordinary, stale thing like the sea, you know, that blue, vast, smooth thing like a plain, and knocks out a unique, completely marvelous simile by comparing it to a “vast blue plain,” forever changing the way we look at the sea. Go buy that, it’d win the Pulitzer if it were American. We logophiles are living in the best of times, so long as Alibris, Amazon and Abe Books continue in the business of selling used books.


  1. I think Theroux's philosophy is very succinctly expressed in his statement which has been chosen as an epigraph to The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Words: "Use your dictionary. It's one of the last few pleasures left in life."

    1. Ha ha, that certainly captures the essence of his novels.

  2. "forcing everyone into a diet of cowpats, the lesser sage, and ounces of mastic" - boy, you are right about quotable. That line is Monty Python-quotable. I would love to have seen Eric Idle say those lines.

    When I see critics - blogging critics, here I mean book bloggers - state the message of a book, I think - I invariably think - "You didn't already know that?"

    1. Yeah, I know, right? I confess I suffered a crisis of purpose when I wrote my own measly novel; the more I wrote it the more the old spiel about the "human condition" seemed rubbish to me. Once a text starts rolling, themes and messages inevitably show up, the trick is not letting them obfuscate the language.