I always hoped Steven Moore would be the one to write this book, the first critical study of Alexander Theroux.
Readers of challenging, unconventional fiction eventually come to know its most vocal paladin. He practically inaugurated William Gaddis Studies; he’s the author of a two-volume The Novel: An Alternative History, equal parts perspicacious and heretical. He’s reviewed most of those big novels you love, and you probably thumb through My Back Pages for more suggestions. He’s edited, prefaced and annotated several books on oddities like Ronald Firbank, W. M. Spackman and Chandler Brossard.
So stellar a reputation precedes him that I was giddy with expectation. However, it turns out Alexander Theroux needs to be rescued from him. A Fan’s Notes is a seminal book because for now it’s the biggest source of information on him, but I hope it gets quickly superseded.
If anything, it proves that Moore needs to write his memoirs: he’s been a bookseller, was on campus during the heydays of the nouvelle critique, witnessed the Realism War and followed the rise of the post-modernist novel; he edited the Review of Contemporary Fiction and managed to hang around and out with many remarkable writers. He’s a good raconteur, intimacy with the best fiction has enabled him to deliver good turns of phrase, and he’s never dull to read.
Once Moore had in mind a third volume of The Novel, covering the 20th century, but backed out due to the effort it entailed; he was understandably fatigued; nowadays he’s just been putting his old material in order. A Fan’s Notes stems from that archival mode: it’s a hodgepodge of previous essays on Theroux and new material on unilluminated aspects of his career. When I heard about it months ago, I assumed it would be like his William Gaddis, with original, insightful essays about at least each of Theroux’s major novels: Three Wogs, Darconville’s Cat, An Adultery, and Laura Warholic. That was precipitous of me: there’s no stand-alone chapter on Three Wogs; An Adultery receives a handful of pages, although interesting enough to make me appreciate it more. Laura Warholic, instead of meriting literary analysis, inspired a chapter on the stressful, secret history of its creation full of false starts, abrupt changes, unwholesome additions to an ever-growing manuscript rife with typos, much to the chagrin of Moore, who volunteered to proof-read for what he estimated would be a two-month gig but dilated into an eighteen-month prison term in a cell with a not-that-perfectionist crank but as tenacious and pugnacious about editorial interference as the perfectionist kind. I can’t blame him for needing to get it out of his chest.
The case of Darconville’s Cat is the strangest: it’s the one novel that receives literary analysis, but Moore just reprinted a 1986 essay without insightful updates; a new, brief addendum called “Darconville’s Cat Redux” just reiterates and condenses its main points. I was left with the impression that Moore since then has not given it much thought. This neglect is all the stranger since he’s famous for saying, “This is the novel I had been waiting for all my life, I realized, nor has the succeeding decade dimmed my ardor. I want to be buried with this novel clasped to my heart.”
The chapters on Theroux’s short-stories inedita, his poetry, his public feud with his more successful brother Paul, and his fumbling around with non-fictions help round out a still mysterious figure and oeuvre. I particularly loved the chapter on literary criticism, proving that we urgently need a selection of his essays and book reviews to better understand his personal views on language, the craft, the art of the novel.
I love The Novel’s premise that, contrary to what Ian Watt argued, the novel did not rise fully formed in 18th-century Great Britain as a medium for realists like Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson to mirror society in their pages, but instead has always been a wild, unruly farrago of forms that defies fossilization as much as it stimulates formalist exploration. In Moore’s revisionist paean to formalists, the realist novel is in fact an abomination of normalcy in a long history of weirdness. He argues this with a swathe of suasion by showing how ancient novels from Greece and Rome, Arab-language countries, China and Japan, deploy and use with sophistication and self-consciousness so many of the techniques we tend to identify with avant-garde fiction. Mind you, this is still news for laymen, not for novelists. John Barth as late as 1971 regarded realism “as a kind of aberration in the history of literature.” Borges said pretty much the same in a 1949 Buenos Aires conference; so big a platitude this was for him he didn’t even bother to keep the text for posterity.
Because Moore is the rare scholar – indeed he’s rare because he is a scholar in a scholar-less age – with one foot on po-mo fiction and another one on literary history, I expected him to apply The Novel treatment to Theroux’s novels, namely showing how his novels have technical similarities with their millennial predecessors, sharing a sort of creative continuum. Moore, however, wasn’t interested in this at all; he’s even reticent to accord them a humble spot in post-modernism, which is fine by me since I don’t even believe “post-modernism” is a thing. Moore, however, not only very much thinks it’s a thing, it’s a thing he thinks very highly of. That becomes problematic when he uses it to evaluate everything else.
Moore was born in 1951, which means he came of age at a time when the most exciting names were Gaddis, Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin; he was twenty-two when Gravity’s Rainbow hit bookstores. By then the Realism War had moved past its trench days and armies were bayonetting each other over the fate of the novel. It’s hard to pinpoint its start; the German Romantics had a go at the English novel, which they saw as stiflingly prosaic and materialistic; however the crisis didn’t gain momentum until the end of the 19th century. One of the earliest documents against the Realist novel was J.-K. Huysman’s preface to the 2nd edition of Against the Grain (1903), or as I like to call it, “The Original Literature of Exhaustion”: “At the date when Against the Grain was published, in 1884 that is to say, the state of things therefore was this: Naturalism was getting more and more out of breath by dint of turning the mill for ever in the same round. The stock of observations that each writer had stored up by self-scrutiny or study of his neighbours was getting exhausted.”
After an impetus from the early Modernists, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Rilke, Musil, Svevo, Pirandelli, Raul Brandão, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Mário de Andrade, Miguel de Unamuno, Andrei Biely, it seemed like Realism was finally going to wrinkle away. Those were the grand obituary days: wherever you turned you’d find José Ortega y Gasset, Viktor Shklovsky, Woolf, the fine French folks at the Nouvelle Revue Française, any other naysayer joyfully declaring the death of the Realist novel. In retrospect they seem like a more massive challenge to ruling tastes than they actually were. Perhaps they could have stood a chance if Realism hadn’t been inadvertently saved by fascism the moment novelists were asked to commit themselves to saving the world, to changing society; by the 1930s European politics were turning shitshape real fast: Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Szálasi in Hungary were pushing every intellectual into communism, which breathed new life into the seemingly moribund realist novel. The 1934 I Soviet Writer’s Congress ruled out Modernism as bourgeois decadence, subjectivity was out, the inner monologue was a symptom of alienation, the proper form of the novel for a responsible writer was, as Stalin decreed, the 19th-century Realist novel, and that rippled across every Communist Party.
Realism never goes away, it has ups and downs; a down moment became a mass movement after 1945 when intellectuals suddenly realized maybe the Soviets weren’t stupendous saviors after all: information about their totalitarian society was leaking into the West, and it was hard not to be nervous now that they too had nuclear bombs. The intellectual’s role, so clear and morally simple during the war, was now getting servile and ambiguous. Meanwhile changes were going on with the novel, a bit everywhere, unconnected yet, but in a couple of decades it would all look coherent enough. Borges’ 1946 preface for The Invention of Morel is one of the best refutations of Realism ever. Nabokov was at Cornell failing insolent students who factored in “content” in aesthetic judgement. In 1949 Alejo Carpentier coined “the marvelous real”. In 1955 Angel Flores used for the first time in English the expression “magical realism”, apparently a major current in Latin American fiction: Flores was wrong, what he detected was a local subset of a global change via-a-vis Realism. Nabokov, in the preface to the 1958 edition of Lolita, said that the word “reality” should only be written with inverted commas. Italo Calvino was writing a fantasy trilogy, Our Ancestors. By the 1960s many young novelists were giving up Realism: Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum hardly fits that label; Barth wrote The Sot-Weed Factor, an extravagant historical novel, outlawed by socialist realists: evidently the proper subject of the novelist is the present, those are the circumstances he must change. The historical novel was by then a discredited genre, as unliterary as science fiction or the detective novel. Science fiction, of course, is what Anthony Burgess would do in A Clockwork Orange, and Gadda and Robbe-Grillet had already usurped the detective novel to destabilize and mock the conventional novel’s attempts at mirroring objective, total reality. Hawkes’ apocalyptic fables set in Europe since 1949 seemingly influenced Pynchon’s doing V. Coover quickly changed from the early realism of The Origin of the Brunists to the fabulation of Pricksongs and Descants, while Angela Carter was rewriting fairy-tales into sexy beasts. Barth’s 1967 “The Literature of Exhaustion” simply repeated a common mantra at the time that Realism had run its course. The same year Robert Scholes published The Fabulators, an early attempt at explaining what would one day be called postmodernist fiction. Incidentally, 1967 was also the year One Hundred Years of Solitude came out. A year before Scholes had co-written The Nature of Narrative, building on Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, a study of other narrative genres upstaged for too long by the hegemonic novel. It was a timely study because novelists, consciously or unconsciously, since 1945 had been appropriating lowbrow genres and even non-novel forms to create new types of novels. So the chivalric novel underlies Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Green House; Coover made a political novella out of the Cat in the Hat, whereas Cortázar turned a Mexican comic book into Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires; Nabokov composed a poem, wrote a commentary on it, and called it a novel; Tomaz de Figueiredo used the Greek panegyric to structure Dom Tanas de Barbatanas; Bellow put Herzog sending letters, although Barth topped it with LETTERS; John Fowles mixed metafiction with the Victorian novel in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Manuel Puig organized Heartbreak Tango as a series of used the feuilletons, whereas Aunt Julia and the Scripwriter pastiched radionovelas. Calvino pastiched different genres in If on a winter’s night a traveller. Ishmael Reed also turned to the detective novel with Mumbo Jumbo. Or else they wrote novels but kept reminding the reader that they were novels, fictions, a gross violation of realistic aesthetics: the narrator directly addresses the reader; the characters suddenly realize they’re characters; tropes are parodically used to foreground their artificiality; Cortázar gave readers the option of reading Rayuela in two different sequences, nothing could make it clearer it’s just an artefact, not a mirror of reality.
Throughout the world, a new type of novelist arose that didn’t want a proper novel, some didn’t even want a novel at all. There was strong sense of militancy on both sides of the Realism War; either you stood up for Realism or you condemned it, there was no room for indecision and appeasement. It was difficult for college students not to get involved: novelists took over creative writing programs, met on campuses for conferences, went there to give readings and to discuss whether or not the novel was dead, or just the realist novel, whether the concept of realism needed to be broadened, or whether it should be dispensed with altogether. To make it harder to ignore, the anti-realists were also infiltrating the syllabus, as Barth gleefully remarked in 1965: “It’s the spectacle of these enormous universities we have now, all over the place, teaching courses in us! These birds in your series, like me, who haven't even reached menopause yet, Notable Nobodies in the Novel, and already they're giving courses in us. Remarkable. Amusing. And I suppose it's admirable on the part of the American universities. But I wonder what effect it will have on literature. For example, where I work there are 600 English majors - maybe 6,000, I don't know. Some can't read and write. But imagine 600 people in central Pennsylvania knowing and caring who Hawkes and Donleavy are - maybe before Hawkes and Donleavy find out themselves! Now that means that a born loser like The Sot-Weed Factor might even be gotten away with, because 2,000 kids in northeast Nebraska or somewhere have to read it in a Modern Novel course.”
Moore, who matured in tandem with this crisis, has since then taken up the defense of all things po-mo. When he discovered Theroux in 1981, “I assumed he was a recruit to the U.S. fiction vanguard of the time – Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Davenport, Gaddis, Gass, Mathews, McElroy, Pynchon, Sorrentino”, but this was premature. In Moore’s mind, in spite of his “ornate style and manipulation of literary forms”, it’s a mistake to group him with them since “the underlying conservatism of his work and his preference for linear storytelling make this an awkward grouping.” At the same time it’s hard to fit him in with the alternative since “that same style, formalist concerns, and general excessiveness disqualify him from the ranks of more traditional novelists like Bellow and Updike”. Moore’s solution is to create a vaporous third category, “literary outsiders like Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’), Ronald Firbank, and Djuna Barnes, whose work has little in common with that of their contemporaries and which instead amalgamate curious byways of literary tradition and eccentric genius into something unique.” This is not very “operative”, as they say in lit crit: Nabokov was politically conservative, but no one denies him his position as po-mo primus inter pares; JD Salinger was an outsider and The Catcher in the Rye is a hopelessly bland 19th-century realist novel. An ornate style hardly exists in Barth and Coover, it’s certainly nowhere in Mulligan Stew. At the same time it’s simplistic to say there are no traces of tradition in po-mos: what else was Barth doing but using tradition when he modelled The Sot-Weed Factor after Henry Fielding’s novels?
Actually, it’s pretty hard to pinpoint what po-mo is exactly: Ihab Hassan once made a longish list of nouns hoping perhaps that they’d gain self-awareness through the miracle of simplexity and hand him meaning on a plate. It’s got stuff like: “Anarchy”, certainly not a noun I’d associate with Nabokov or Gass’s masterful control of the text; “Exhaustion/Silence”, showing that he had trouble with a paradigm that included such verbal antipodes as Beckett and…. well, anyone who wasn’t Beckett, I guess; “Rhetoric”, because Finnegans Wake is lisible compared to The Voyeur; “Anti-Narrative/Petite Histoire”, as opposed to Modernism’s “Narrative/Grande Histoire”, I mean, just look at all the grand history taking place on 16 June, 1904, oblivious to World War I, George Steiner was still inconsolable 60 years later, meanwhile Terra Nostra is a laborious 900-page feverish interpretation of one of the most cataclysmic events in history, the meeting of Europeans and Amerindians.
Moore exaggerates the importance of non-linearity. Gass once remarked, “I think that the notion that contemporary fiction is anti-linear is too simple.” He gave Barth and Hawkes as examples. We could add West, Nabokov, Burgess. There’s nothing but linearity in that Victorian double-decker that is The Recognitions. Calvino, in an essay in The Uses of Literature, claimed around this time that he was reconnecting with fables and linear storytelling precisely because the fashion in continental Europe toward non-linearity and anti-plot had already unveiled its boring results in the novels of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. Barth himself opposed Beckett’s “literature of silence” with the return to plot and storytelling. By the way, given that Moore has read Theroux’s thesis on “The Language of Samuel Beckett”, he missed an opportunity to investigate postmodernists’ conflicted relationship with him. Raymond Federman once spoke of Beckett having closed the door behind him regarding the erasure of language and story; he had gone as far as he could but those after him didn’t have to follow him. The underlying premise of The Fabulators is that there was a widespread return to storytelling, some of it linear, perfectly harmonious with formalist exploration.
Moore, however, is not ready to give up this elegant dichotomy: referring to Darconville’s Cat he states shocked that “The story is simple, the plot unfolds in linear fashion, and the moral is clear.” You can almost hear the disappointment. Oh, if only it were a bit unreadable like The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow, he sniffs. “It’s a rare, perhaps unique example of a novel that reads like a best-seller while deploying the kind of literary pyrotechnics associated with rarified postmodern fiction.” The counterargument to this is that Cat was not a best-seller, unlike the “maximalist, encyclopedic” Gravity’s Rainbow, whose “elaborate style and range of references” notwithstanding has been uninterruptedly reprinted since 1973 whereas Cat flopped and has been out of print since 1996.
Darconville’s Cat is linear but it breaks down the plot with intromissions from other genres, interpolating a love story with digressions, fables, poems, essays, lists, fragmenting it, creating tension between the narrative’s forward impulse and what Shklovsky called “deceleration”. It is a slow, frustrating read, not just because the style is so extravagant the right reader should pause to savor it, but also because Theroux is doing everything to delay the conclusion. It’s strange that Moore doesn’t acknowledge the validity of this technique, since The Sot-Weed Factor is elementarily legible by comparison. He’s right that, reduced to its plot, Cat sounds “conventional and melodramatic”, but the same argument has been used by everyone who just wants to read for the “story”.
I’d insert Theroux in a homemade tradition of language suspicion. From the start American fiction has always been about tricksters, grifters and confidence-men using the gift of the gab to get victims to do their bidding. The classic example is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man. However, you can already hear the tone of future con artists in Captain Ahab’s unctuousness:
“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ’Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?”
I’d follow this man to the voting booth! The Pequod is a brilliant allegory of American democracy, a community constituted by semiliterate lower-class workers who follow a well-off madman with extraordinary charisma and rhetorical resources in pursuit of an “enemy” that has caused them no harm, and it all ends in doom. To my mind this has always been an essential aspect of American po-mo. ‘60s fiction was nostalgic over rhetorical play, but at the same time it had lost innocence over the neutrality of language; it became common for villains or morally dubious characters to be rhetorical wizards: I’m thinking of Humbert Humbert, Charles Kinbote, and also crazy Alley Jaggers in West’s Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, a neglected masterpiece, and Dick Gibson in Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show, insane, manipulative, egotistic, in love with the sound of their own bullshit, smooth-talkers who cheat, lie, oppress, fakes who reinvent themselves through shoptalk, monsters who amplify themselves with a grandeur that hides their ethical hollowness. Dr. Crucifer, the evil master of eloquence, is right at home in this monstrous menagerie. Darconville’s voice practically disappears whenever he enters a chapter:
“R-R-Revenge!” cried Dr. Crucifer, his voice resembling the tearing of a strip of calico. He was almost unable to pronounce the word from happiness as he pressed the pistol into Darconville’s hand. “It is a wonderful witty word much disliked by those to whom the thing signified by it is nevertheless dear. Harden your heart. What good is kindness now? All delight comes to an end, hence the chief pleasure in the next beginning: spill the thing’s blood and water a mandrake! It’s only justice! White, to use the parlance of chess, is always morally justified in attacking, so let black see to black – remember, in describing a capture only the capturing and captured pieces are mentioned, never slyness of method or means. Say nothing and you won’t have to repeat it. But be chaos: fast in action, dirigible in absence. She doesn’t have the right to own the area she’s in.”
Theroux’s not different from his contemporaries in showing the pollution of everyday language. Three Wogs uses language charged with racial clichés
Picric, antagonized, scuffing forward with a leer, Fu Manchu readily confirmed a common fear: a distorted mind proves that there is something on it. A girl in a diaphanous shift squirmed to bounce free of the ropes which held her, like a network of fistulae, to a scaled gold and emerald table, a simulated dragon of smooth wood; a purple gag she was unable to spit free. The yellow, moonshaped face of Fu Much, poised between inscrutability and simple lust, both of which disputed for mastery, twitched in a decisive way and then his ochre fingernails, as if plotting a map, curved over her arm, onto her shoulder, up to her clavicle. Suddenly in the midst of depositing into the ashtray a slice of cellophane from her second pack of cigarettes, Mrs. Proby screamed. An unsherette came running down the aisle and ranged various shocked groups of people with the long beam of her flashlight.”
for the same reason The Public Burning is written in a patriotic sociolect:
On June 24, 1950, less than five years after the end of World War II, the Korean War begins, American boys are again sent off in uniforms to die for Liberty, and a few weeks later, two New York City Jews, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, are arrested by the FBI and charged with having conspired to steal atomic secrets and pass them to the Russians. They are tried, found guilty, and on April 5, 1951, sentenced by the Judge to die – thieves of light to be burned by light – in the electric chair, for it is written than ‘any man who is dominated by demonic spirits to the extent that he gives voice to apostasy is to be subject to the judgement upon sorcerers and wizards.’ Then, after the usual series of permissible sophistries, the various delaying moves and light-restoring countermoves, their fate – as the U.S. Supreme Court refuses for the sixth and last time to hear the case, locks its doors, and goes off on holiday – is at least sealed, and it is determined to burn them in New York City’s Times Square on the night of their fourteenth wedding anniversary, Thursday, June 18, 1953.
There are reasons for this: theatrical, political, whimsical. It is thought that such an event might provoke open confessions: the Rosenbergs, until now tight-lipped and unrepentant, might at least, once on stage and lights up, perceive their national role and fulfil It, freeing themselves before their deaths from the Phantom’s dark mysterious power, unburdening themselves for the people, and might thereby bring others as well – to the altar, as it were – to cleanse their souls of the Phantom’s taint.
Both show how ideology is conveyed and maintained by pop culture and mass media to the point it infects everyday language. Around the same time Roland Barthes said that language is fascist, American novelists were showing how. The Eisenhowerian diction of “light” and “darkness”, the dehumanization of the enemy as “the Phantom”, are no more comical than the cinematic Yellow Peril stereotypes that confirm Mrs. Proby’s fears of Asians invading “her neighborhood”.
Theroux is aware that rhetoric in the past was a vital part of life. “The glory that was the ancient hero – Odysseus, Achilles, Aeneas, Beowulf, even Hamlet and Milton’s Satan – was, in fact, often bound up with the glory of his speech; his gift that way seemed to be the linchpin of that very heroism, the logical extension of his grandeur,” he says in the “Metaphrastes”. Curiously, a year later Gass said in an interview: “In my book, if anybody gets to be the hero, he’s got the best passages. Hamlet has the best lines. Milton’s Satan has the best lines.” He was talking about Jethro Furber, the preacher in Omensetter’s Luck. Furber was a minor character in the first draft. In another interview he said, “He is certainly the central, pivotal character because he has the best lines, and people have been puzzled about that because it moves him toward a heroic status.” I don’t want to belabor the similarities between Furber and Crucifer, but it’s telling that both of them have more powerful rhetoric than their subdued audiences.
I’d hate to give the impression that I care whether or not Theroux is allowed into the po-mo playground; I’m amused by this point because Moore persists in it. He turns particularly tetchy when Theroux gives irreverential smacks to po-mo aristocracy. His targets include: a Barth novel, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Sorrentino’s awesome Mulligan Stew, Gravity’s Rainbow. Moore is right to point out that he often criticizes other for vices he himself commits; however, what he regrets is the lack of a brotherhood. What a relief when he gives a break to his longstanding reservations to applaud Against the Day, “it is gratifying to see Theroux finally come over to Team Pynchon”, although Moore doesn’t explain why it’s such a big deal if intelligent readers don’t like Gravity’s Rainbow. (I badly want to know the source in page 156 of Nabokov’s alleged inability to understand it). Hugh Kenner wasn’t that impressed, see A Homemade World. Neither was Gore Vidal. Nor John Banville. Theroux’s impatience over Pynchon’s obscurity comes across better than Gass’s standoffish attitude every time his name comes up: Theroux at least gives the impression that he thinks Pynchon’s a decent writer.
Moore has the habit of thinking in terms of a po-mo platoon instead of individuals. He makes it look like they knew each other early on, were friends, read each other, had the same goals, when in fact most of them didn’t know each other, didn’t read each other, and had no idea they were part of a tendency when they started publishing. Besides a covert distrust of Realism, little else connected them. Sure, later on once in a while they got together, after the label “Post-Modernists” was invented; once Gass, Coover, Hawkes, Barthelme threw a party; Pynchon didn’t attend so they placed a potted plant in his chair. (And next year’s big trend in MFA theses will be: what plant species was it, and what does it all mean?)
Instead of talking about po-mo like it’s a real thing, it’s more productive to group writers according to what they do with language. Theroux’s place is next to Nabokov, Gass, West, Elkin, but not Coover, Barth, Barthelme, Sorrentino, Pynchon, Gaddis, regardless of their other and many qualities. “Well, like Sir Thomas Browne, I’m great on resting places,” Furber says in Omensetter’s Luck. This isn’t just name dropping, it signals a galaxy of references shared by these writers who were more attuned to style than to shenanigans. Theroux, West, and Gass evidently returned to Elizabethan and Baroque authors, Lyly, Shakespeare (the Willie in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife), Marlowe, Donne. Whereas from Barth and Pynchon I get the impression that language is immaterial, for the others it’s the only material.
Fortunately, Moore has always abhorred theory, a novel for him is a concrete, singular object and cannot be reduced to obfuscating jargon and general ideas, the point is to bring its process of creation closer to the reader; I read literary essays so I can refine the reasons to admire the genius of a writer. That’s why The Novel was so triumphant. Po-mo is just a gale in the ocean of the novel; and like a gale, it merely rained down what once came up from that ocean. Although Theroux is conversant with his contemporaries’ techniques, he’s fed by Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance literature, plus Catholic liturgy and the Patristic tradition. Moore is engaging when he identifies a quote buried in a paragraph, or tracks down a source from which Theroux got his research, like Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels, or shows how a previous text was appropriated by him. I had not yet realized that “Childe Roland” in Three Wogs used and subverted Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. In these moments he instructs like an old-time scholar; it’s just a pity that they’re so rare. The ideal Theroux scholar would be proficient in all the above-mentioned fields, but Moore shows his anti-Catholic prejudices, which is fine in everyday life but a big obstacle in literary analysis.
In every Theroux novel someone tries to educate or aestheticize an object of desire: Reverend Which Therefore with Cyril, Darconville with Isabella, Christian with Farol Colorado, Eugene with Laura Warholic. They idealize them or superimpose a fantasy on them. This betrays a need to control an otherwise disenchanted, ugly, mediocre world. Theroux knows what the protagonists don’t, that this is bound to fail; as such they can only be prepotent and suited to tragicomedy. In this sense, all his novels are a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, minus the happy ending. However, behind their failures is a sympathetic author raging against his time. It’s this need to evade his own time that makes his fiction a unique nexus of traditions.
Theroux’s wide learning is dissimulated in the most overt elements. Consider Darconville’s Cat’s: “Isabel is first invested with the entire literary heritage of romantic love, then stripped and reviled with the English language’s disturbingly large vocabulary of misogyny,” writes Moore. This isn’t just structural symmetry; this is a shout out to ancient rhetorical education. According to Laurent Pernot in Epideictic Rhetoric, Greek Sophists assigned their students an exercise called antilogiai, pairs of opposing discourses on the same topic. The technical term in Latin is laus et vituperatio, praise and vituperation. Well into the Renaissance this was part of the curriculum: “Along side of the satirical epistle flourished the satirical description, an obvious subject for a school exercise… Every schoolboy learned how to describe a woman’s beauty, and how to write an ‘invective’ against women,” wrote F. J. E. Raby in A History of Christian-Latin Poetry.
Darconville’s Cat is also steeped in an ancient genre called “rhetorical paradox” or “paradoxical praise”, “the formal defense, organized along the lines of traditional encomia, of an unexpected, unworthy, or indefensible subject,” explained Rosalie Littell Colie in Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox. From Antiquity to the Renaissance there’s no shortage of encomia to flees, gnats, rats, avarice, baldness, debts, down to the most famous example, Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. The paradox, when oratory was a major part of life, was a genre much appreciated for its rhetorical inventiveness, once upon a time audiences loved to be dazzled by a speaker with bold, surprising arguments and wordplay. You can detect this thrill at shocking common sense in the chapter “Hate” in which Crucifer praises hate as if he were Montaigne’s mad brother. In fact, Crucifer’s praise of misogyny is very much in the tradition of the paradoxical praise.
Laura Warholic is clearly a modern-day Menippean satire: it conforms to what Northrop Frye wrote about it in Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. Here again no sharp boundary lines can or should be drawn, but if we compare a character in Jane Austen with a similar character in Peacock we can immediately feel the difference between the two forms. Squire Western belongs to the novel, but Thwackum and Square have Menippean blood in them. A constant theme in the tradition is the ridicule of the philosophus gloriosus, already discussed. The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry which the philosophus gloriosus at once symbolizes and defines.
“At its most concentrated the Menippean satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern,” continues Frye. “The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that results reflects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction.” Theroux’s characters, have silly names, Eugene Eyestones, Micepockets, Rapunzel Wisht, Ratnaster, Discknickers, but no more ridiculous than Pangloss (“all languages”), Pantagruel (“the all-thirsting one”), Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“God-born devil-dung”). I was disappointed to learn from A Fan’s Notes that “Warholic” is an actual Polish surname, because a warholic, someone addicted to war, is the perfect summation of Laura’s personality – it’s the sort of unsubtle symbolic surname Petronius or Rabelais would have given to a character. The characters in Laura Warholic, being faithful to their genre, do what Frye describes, they spew and spout lots of gibberish and galimatias about things they have encyclopedic knowledge about and refuse to engage with the world without mediation from their verbal schemata. As such, they seldom engage in proper conversation; they don’t communicate so much as they preach, they overpower their audiences with jargon and argot. Speaking as a Thomas Love Peacock enthusiast, this is the most normal novel Theroux has yet written.
In “Theroux Metaphrastes”, his apologia pro stilo suo, he writes. “Words, among other things, are to style what the clapper is to the bell. And style is a heretic, blasphemously undemocratic. It shows no direct Terentian commitment to humanity. Who wouldn’t call it, however, the purest of prayer?” I can’t help but think of William Blake: “Prayer is the study of Art. Praise is the practice of Art.” Which leads me of course into Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Poet Speaks of Praising”:
Oh speak, poet, what do you do?
But the monstrosities and the murderous days,
how do you endure them, how do you take them?
Where Theroux strikes me as an old-fashioned conservative, is not in his politics, it’s in the fact that he profoundly believes that beauty is immanent to literature. The world fascinates him so much he can’t help give it back ennobled and augmented by language. But then he’s Catholic, and since God is the Word, how could he not? This matter goes beyond the idle discussion in the 1960s’ about whether literature should “represent” the world or “create” an autonomous one. The world in Giles Goat-Boy is certainly not ours, it’s a creation, but it’s not more beautiful for it. I don’t mean beauty in the sense of good sentiments, positive messages, hackneyed morality, the avoidance of horrible content. Darconville’s Cat is a litany of horrors, but even when Crucifer is listing ways of killing women language imbues him with grace. Theroux’s language celebrates everything it casts its attention upon, even what’s sordid, vicious, bigoted. This is another instance of his conversation with tradition. “It was Proust, after all, who taught us that art by no means represents a copy of reality, rather it creates a truer, a nobler, more poetic reality,” he said. He may have learned that from Proust, but this wasn’t Proustian wisdom. The 17th-century Italian poet Giambattista Marino said that the poet’s goal was to create “meraviglia”, wonder. Novalis ordered: “All the world must romanticized.” Theroux belongs to an idealistic tradition that rejects materialism and the Enlightenment, from which Realism stems, and that continues to treat language as a medium endowed with divine power. Once poets made poetry to praise either God or his Creation, which was a byroad to Him. St. Augustine composed sermons in rhymed Latin because God was worth the effort. It was the Enlightenment that defiled language, previously used in the poem and the sermon, and reduced it from a creative medium to what it is nowadays, a tool to report the news and to write academic papers, a trite, desiccated system of simple coordinates to move thoughts from A to Z in a way most people can follow. In the wake of Bacon and Descartes, language became prose, and prose was what essays and scientific treatises were written in. And because they were now written for their fellow men and not God, everyone followed Pascal’s recommendation: “It is not among extraordinary and fantastic things that excellence is to be found, of whatever kind it may be.” So Marino was out. “We rise to attain it and become removed from it: it is oftenest necessary to stoop for it. The best books are those, which those who read them believe they themselves could have written. Nature, which alone is good, is wholly familiar and common.” Just let that simmer for a while: the best books are those you think you could have written. Every time Pascal opened his mouth to talk about eloquence he sounded, like many of his coevals, very much like the simpletons Theroux lambasts in the “Metaphrastes”. At times it seems like he’s excoriating less the idiots of his time than Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Sprat, Bouhours, Antoine de Rivarol, as if he were an atavist fending off the inevitable. “O let the long-nosed, umbrella-carrying joy-killers kick the pins out from under metaphor and simile, color and allusion.” Was this a snipe at poor Diane Johnson or rancor at Hobbes? Hobbes condemned metaphors in Leviathan’s chapter “Abuses of Speech”. In “Causes of Absurdity” one learns that the sixth way of causing it implies using “Metaphors, Tropes, and other Rhetoricall figures, in stead of words proper.” Rivarol called them “ce perpétuel mensonge de la parole”, the word’s perpetual lie.
This is the main reason why I love Theroux’s novels and his truculence; sure, I may enjoy his characters, his vast erudition, the satire, the structure, but none of that matters much without a defense of style. God may not be around anymore, but I don’t see why we mortals can’t have Latin sermons composed for us. Plainness may be acceptable in a scientific essay, although even Descartes threw good metaphors into Discourse on the Method, but language is the way we peer into ourselves, connect with others, see the world and make sense of life; when language goes wrong, life itself suffers, impoverishment follows, experience is diminished. Literature cannot give back reality, it can either grunt about it or sing it; as time goes by, fewer and fewer writers make music out of language. That makes Theroux a valuable repository of an ancient tradition.
At one point in the “Metaphrastes” Theroux lists several writers important to him; one of them is the Cicero of Letters to Atticus. Moore is baffled at this choice; I’m baffled at no Gorgias, the father of poetic prose. Cicero’s perfectly understandable, he’s the bedrock of the rhetorical curriculum; during the Middle Ages he was the main authority since Aristotle’s Rhetoric was out of reach. Cicero is also the legendary cause of the Renaissance, thanks precisely to Petrarch finding a manuscript of Letters to Atticus. It’s worth bearing in mind that children throughout Europe, when they enrolled in the Trivium, were battered with his texts, considered the most perfect models of Latin usage; students learned rhetoric from copying him in Latin. Without Cicero there would have been no Lyly, no Marlowe, no Shakespeare.
Cicero is the also the source of the doctus orator, the learned orator, a polymath fluent in all knowledges, the ideal to which the Ancients aspired. Browne and Burton, the great encyclopedists whom Theroux emulates, wanted to be a doctus orator. Moore wrote a lovely essay about the “tradition of learned wit” in Darconville’s Cat, but fails to acknowledge Cicero’s importance in inventing it.
Given that Theroux was a student of Hugh Kenner, as I’ve learned from reading this book, I wonder if his teacher exposed him to his pals Marshall McLuhan, Walter J Ong, Eric A. Havelock, scholars who devoted their lives to studying the rise and fall of rhetoric from Antiquity to the Renaissance, and also Christians who passionately defended a tradition that they saw curtailed and endangered by the Enlightenment.
A Fan’s Notes is not a depressing book, but it leads to a sad conclusion: almost nobody besides Moore has engaged with Theroux’s fiction. He refers from time to time to someone else’s essay or thesis, but the impression is that no one cares about his rich, allusive, funny, challenging fiction. It’s not a unique misfortune: Paul West and Stanley Elkin seem stuck in Logos-less limbo. Gass probably hasn’t slipped into it yet because he’s kept “relevant” thanks to a sentence of his about coaches and American fascism culled from a novel few have actually read. America’s most rhetorical novelists from the last fifty years, its best manipulators of language, don’t interest academics whose job is supposedly to study the books that use language to its fullest potential. I have no idea what interests literary critics, but it’s probably not literature; I even suspect Academe is not a place where the beauty of language is relished for its own sake anymore.
The myth of the doctus orator was one of the first casualties of the Enlightenment, which also invented the specialist. Up until the 19th century, educated Europeans believed that a man could tame all the knowledge in the world. Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Young are routinely touted as the last men who knew everything. In the field of mathematics, Leonhard Euler and Carl Friedrich Gauss are candidates for the last mathematician who knew all mathematics. Theroux, then, is not just a throwback, he’s an exasperating provocation to our modern mania for sub-specialization. Steiner, who always had a troubled relationship with Academe, was the last scholar to call himself “generalist” with pride. “Specialization has reached moronic vehemence,” he said. “Learned lives are expended on reiterative minutiae. Academic rewards go to the narrow scholiast, to the blinkered. Men and women in the learned profession proclaim themselves to be experts on one author, in one brief historical period, in one aesthetic medium.”
It may be that Theroux is writing for a scholar who doesn’t exist anymore, and yet when Kenner, Frye and Steiner were still alive they didn’t care either. McLuhan probably could have revealed the intricacies of his learning with nitid simplicity. As late as 1958 Frye complained, “Western literature has been more influenced by the Bible than by any other book, but with all his respect for ‘sources,’ the critic knows little more about that influence than the fact that it exists. Biblical typology is so dead a language now that most readers, including scholars, cannot construe the superficial meaning of any poem which employs it.” The problem is specialization: most academics have given up trying to master the whole. McLuhan was simultaneously at home in Ciceronian rhetoric, Patristic exegesis, Mallarmé’s poetry and media theory. At the close of The Classic Trivium, his gorgeous book on the Elizabethan Age, he wrote: “Many facts contributed to make it an age of rhetoric, and even of conflicting rhetorics; but we have long persisted in viewing it in the light of the violent reaction against what Huxley called ‘that pestilent cosmetic, rhetoric.’ It required, perhaps, the advent of such a successful devotee of the second sophistic as James Joyce, to prepare the ground for a scholarly understanding of Elizabethan literature.” Ideally, there should also be scholars paying attention at how Elizabethan literature continues to resonate in contemporary fiction. However, students are now reared not to step outside their narrow fields. An expert on Renaissance rhetoric will want nothing to do with the 20th-century novel. Experts on Menippea don’t acknowledge that it’s still being practiced; I recall David Musgrave addressing Midnight’s Children in Grotesque Anatomies, but that’s about it, they usually stop in the 18th century.
My enjoyment of Theroux’s novels isn’t hindered by my knowing that they’re inaccessible to me beyond what’s simply on the surface; but I’m painfully aware that they’ll always be less real and that their innermost part will remain mute. I hope a scholar one day comes along and makes them sing.