The problem of how much of the tool to employ plagues both painter and prosateur, for the availability of hues and words, if too restricted or too rumbustious, conditions the scope of the work, the approach to the subject, the formal outlook. A rigmarole of rationales has made the outcome of this choice inseparable from ethical aspects. Given my partiality to verbal exuberance, I often register its bad rep for superficiality, obscurity, coldness, deceit, glibness, hollowness. Such stereotypes tend to come unsurprisingly from proponents of sackcloth syntax self-servingly standing up for their sovereignty; but it’s worth paying attention to this warning when it’s delivered by our last sumptuous, sedulous stylist, Alexander Theroux. In “Chosen Locksley Swims the Tiber”, the vapid, venal, vampirish fashion industry is castigated for manufacturing wants, selling illusions, trivializing privacy, and supplanting reality with a colorful make-believe world whose unrealistic ambassadresses pose for covers and centerfolds dressed “in new and bizarre over-the-top hues, like sorrel and puce, perse and ochroleucus, nankeen and watchet, nacarat and cramoisy, smalt and jessamy, liard and eau-de-nil, badious and haematic, infuscate and lovat, tilleul and atrous! Such inanity.” The outrage is heartfelt and deserving; it’s also a luscious cornucopia of a sentence.
For a writer, words are analogous to hues, and for a writer of Therouvian bent it’s not possible to avoid the self-criticism that abundance resembles too much the sordid strategies of marketing, always deluging and deluding us with the illusion of “choice”, always causing a ruckus over the latest novelty, always distracting us with an onslaught of impressions. But writers who cultivate abundance do it because they conflate it with the chief characteristic of an inexhaustible world and because instead of deceiving they want to show the exactitude behinds its exoticism. “Catachresis” is the name for using wrong words to name things in absence of their correct name; it’s actually a widespread act and producer of metaphors: many examples of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Language is fossil poetry” would fall in that category. “Catachresis” is the kind of obscure word that would show up in a Theroux book, although to my knowledge it hasn’t yet; but it’s not a peccadillo you often find him committing in flagrante delicto since he knows the names of all things.
Cynosure, eyrie, sommelier, pogonion, poniard, quidnunc, blivet (misspelling of blivit: alas, typos abound), poltroon, ducatoon, boxty, coombe, fyke, punnet, dowel, haust, palinka, replevin, fino, pinder, grampus, calenture, bumfuzzle, piggate, bosthoon, mundungus, shagbag, obtumency, kenosis, floribundant, zareba, celadon, dystonia, hoyden, quidding, durum, obfusc constitute a very small selection of the words that, depending on your attitude to style, you’ll have a gas looking up or will make you feel the agonies of a gas chamber.
Some are ancient and of regal pedigree: looking up “curkle” led me to Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Early English, which informs me that it was used – likely coined – by Thomas Urquhart in his 1693 translation of Rabelais. It’s the quail’s calling sound. Several words he lifts from other languages; and since he lived in Great Britain too, many more have leaped the pond; basically expect him to use whatever he needs to get the job done. I particularly liked his epithet about “trustifarian (sic) braganzas”, alluding I presume to the Braganças, a Portuguese royal dynasty known for its prodigal spending on architecture thanks to its easily-earned opulence from Brazilian gold.
In the niche Theroux readership there’s a faint discussion over whether or not he’s a postmodernist, a doubt of no consequence to me, but a restless question I think because his reputation still rests mainly on Darconville’s Cat (1981), a “big book” that attracts “big books” fans, a cerebrotonic crowd that at times seems to have read nothing else besides Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest, by whose characteristics they vet further candidates before granting them admittance into the “big books” club. That leaves Darconville’s Cat in quite a pickle due to scant similarities, a flaw that has caused an endless source of inquietude to Theroux’s foremost scholar.
It has always been tricky to peg down Theroux, but I’d go one heresy further and propose that he probably doesn’t even qualify as a late modernist. He’s one of those eccentrics who, had modernism never existed, would have produced exactly the same output. Regardless of his paying the obligatory lip service to James Joyce in interviews, so far he’s made no use of stream of consciousness, nor does Woolfian inner monologue rank high in his rhetorical repertoire. Unlike Kafka, he doesn’t create nightmarish allegories; he has a novel titled An Adultery, which as far as plot goes is what the cover threatens. Although he shares Proust’s and Faulkner’s affection for the theme of memory and nostalgia, neither non-linearity nor long convoluted sentences compass his calamus.
Theroux’s an azygous pre-modernist oddity. What’s always drawn me to his work was his lexical largess straight out of Baroque authors like Urquhart and Sir Thomas Browne; but his receipt is wholly ancient: Renaissance-era paradoxical statements; aphorisms lingering from 17th-century French thinkers; an erudition from when Cicero-planned humanist education was regnant. His pedantry, paraded and mocked in equal measure, aligns him with the long tradition of the Menippean satirists, Lucian, Erasmus, Rabelais, Thomas Love Peacock, an unfashionable crowd.
Nothing else in this volume shows his affinity to the classics better than his reliance on dialogue over narrative. Several stories feature a nameless or unobtrusive narrator gleefully registering strange utterances from some oddball he’s been fortuitous to cross paths with. Like Lycinus, they’ve met their long-winded Lexiphanes, except they feel elated at suck luck. Only in “An English Railroad” does the narrator regret being cornered by his aggressive interlocutor’s endless chatter. This type of speaker, who holds his audience hostage, has a noble tradition behind him. Léon Bloy’s “The Tarantulas’ Parlor” is an awesome short-story about a mediocre poet who forces a friend at gun point to listen to his recital. But Theroux shows how language can be hurled as a missile.
In fact, just about every salience that juts out from his style and worldview predates modernism. Theroux is the rarest of the rare, a surviving member of a nearly wiped-out race of rhetorical writers, for whom notions of good writing come from advices found in manuals 2 000 years ago. When he crafts as showy a sentence as “I’m as high as the sky on the Fourth of July for it!”, surely his ambit is not to keep Hemingway’s American modernism alive – the aphasic Creative Writing course crowd that worships Gordon Lish has got that. However, casually bandying rhyming prose is what Gorgias and Apuleius and medieval Arab fictionists did, more unfashionable people. What Theroux calls “amplification” was a fixed feature of Apuleius’ style, already so unpopular back then that Renaissance humanists called it tumor Africanus, African bombast. Theroux’s penchant for archaically obscure words (the exact name for that is “gadzookery”) received a riposte 2 000 years ago from Lucian in his dialogue “Lexiphanes”, wherein one hapless Lycinus is cornered to listen to a shambolic text by Lexiphanes, at the end of which he complains: “Why, this is the matter; don’t you hear? He leaves us his contemporaries, and goes a thousand years off to talk to us, which he does by aid of these tongue-gymnastics and extraordinary compounds — prides himself upon it, too, as if it were a great thing to disguise yourself, and mutilate the conversational currency.” It’s as if Lucian set down the blueprint of every future The New York Times book review.
Early Stories, a miniature of Theroux’s four extant novels but as illuminated as a holy book, confirms what’s always been clear, that Theroux’s a realist with a better-than-average vocabulary, a realist by necessity insofar as it allows him to better unleash his satirical energies. He’s an observer of foibles and follies, a jotter-down of crankiness, composing speechscapes into searing shape instead of interweaving the strands of mirabolant plots. Although born in the same decade as John Barth, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, whereas they unloaded vitality onto storytelling, Theroux focused on Fabergé phrases that transfigured the quotidian. He always stood apart, even geographically, for his first novel, Three Wogs (1972), a triptych of comical but down-to-earth stories, was written during a stay in Great Britain.
Theroux’s ideas about writing resemble less those of a modern MFA graduate than of a schoolboy in Shakespeare’s time, drilled with recitals, tasked with pastiches of classics and forced to memorize the names of hundreds of figures of style. Eloquence ruled a rung above realism; the schoolboy learned to spun fine sentences, which I guess is why Theroux often oscillates between Flaubertian indirect speech and omniscient third person narrator, an open-voiced speaker who’s verbally unconstrained by appeals to the maintenance of verisimilitude. Decide from the outset that you must reproduce the “stream of consciousness” of an ordinary protagonist, and phrasal banality by force follows since the stream is strewn with inarticulate jetsam and flotsam. But attribute every utterance to a mysterious omniscience hovering above its demotic denizens and no breach of “verisimilitude” precludes it from adding alliteration, punning, rhymed prose, gadzookery, bombast.
But although his fans often invoke his vocabulary as a reason of praise, and I’m guilty of doing that myself, it’s an easy trick to pull off, replaceable by perusing a dictionary, that leaves out the finesse his prose achieves with everyday words. For instance, he places verbs with virtuosity: “He dunned himself with demerits whenever the real possibility of being with Summer entered his head”, or “He tented into himself.” He liberates verbs from the function of pragmatic statement, using them instead metaphorically in ways that rearrange reality. In 2001, Martin Amis convincingly argued that the role of the writer is to wage a war against the cliché. That’s true; it may be true also that he nabbed such commandment from Theroux, who in 1991 declared that “Writing is an assault on cliché”. More likely, both are indebted to Nabokov, high priest of epeolatry, stylistic shadow looming large over postwar English-language writers, although we can go all the way back to Giambattista Marino’s injunction that poetry’s role is to produce meraviglia, wonder. And does Theroux work for it! One man has a “cauliflorian flace”, another one “looked like a marine slug, shiny and fat”, while “ladies with applepandowdy faces” grace another story. One protagonist peers down “into the shallow water to see his reflection, a reflection, the face too few in the world, having seen, frankly ever liked.”
Theroux takes care to excoriate venality, hollowness, glossiness, cynicism without making them integral to the Therouvian treasure trove. No scruples stop him from putting forth models of ideal living; he lashes out at pedantry, avarice, wickedness, greed, egoism. Every satirist hides a moralist. But if I had to name the mode of Early Stories, I’d name it the mode of thaumasmus, according to the dictionary “The presentation of something as a marvel rather than in a neutrally descriptive way”. The magic of the ordinary mesmerizes Theroux; he sympathizes with the foibles and frailties of ordinary people.
Some stories treat these wonders as ambiguous preciosities. In “The American Tourist Home”, a nameless curious narrator spends the evening with Duane, a rural South man who lives in a tourist home with his mom; on the front porch, this rustic raconteur awes the city man with verbal finds. Of Duane he says, “I had begun to think he had a head harder than dental enamel, but his entrepreneurial drive impressed me.” Duane dishes out sentences like: “Some folk prefer fiddlehead fern to okra. The fractals in a fern form a first-rate function, don’t you think?”, prompting the narrator’s reflection: “More idiot savant stuff!” But he also dazzles him: “The only truth a wave knows is that it is going to break, right?” “I looked at him and almost fell over. How the deuce did he come up with these gems? Duane was a philosopher. There is in the country boy’s head a small nut of genius, I’ve always thought. Twain. Faulkner. Elvis.” The yet uncivilized countryside has long attracted lexiphanic compilers since its people haven’t ceded their peculiarity to conform to big city homogeneity. It’s what made the Italian Carlo Emilio Gadda a deployer of dialects and nearly unreadable to his own countrymen. Duane reminds me Grande Sertão: Veredas, a novel by the Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa; it’s narrated by Riobaldo, a former jagunço, an armed militia man, a barely literate dweller of the sertão, the backlands, who tells his life to a listener who never intervenes; Riobaldo is a savage sage, constantly coming up with insightful observations in ingenious language. What’s local is singular; what’s cosmopolitan is commonplace.
In the same vein, “A Wordstress in Williamsburg” is the narrator’s report on his afternoon encounter with the eccentric Rosemary Sweetshrub, an aging writer whom he derisively calls an “authoressette” but whose droll pomposity enthralls him: “Random remarks that she made seemed to cry out – in her mind, at least – for a Boswell.” Whereas Duane’s value resides in his being uncorrupted by big city ways, Mrs. Sweetshrub is a riotous relic, out of touch with modern niceties, naively racist, affectedly solemn: “She was a limitless fund of psychobabble about self-reliance, lots of the socks-up, Albert Ellis/Dale Carnegie/’Personal Growth’/’Human Potential,’ Bliss Carman-like, pseudo-neo-Stoic, self-esteem, ringing self-assurance, learning-to-like-yourself, being-your-own-best-friend sort of cant, filled with palliative language of therapy that favored expressions like ‘share’ for ‘tell,’ ‘relationship’ for ‘romance,’, ‘reach out’ for ‘call or visit someone in pain or trouble,’ ‘challenges’ or issues’ – for ‘problems’ or ‘troubles’ – and (emotional) ‘closure.’” She’s curious as collectible antique items: “She was exacting, finicky, fussy – what the French call difficile – and in a very real sense distinctly outmoded, a person from the bygone era of Squibb toothpaste, Lux toilet soap, Ronald Colman movies, the twelve-cylinder Franklin, Atwater Kent radios, and squat cap-sealed beer cans”, he says.
“Pedantry comes easy enough to her”, the narrator says of Mrs. Sweetshrub, but is it an admonition or a compliment? Another narrator says: “The pub over there is an anti-staling agent. It’s a mighty catholicon. There’s a word for you. I’m a wide reader, forgive me.” However, the gift of genius can be burdensome, especially when the burden falls on precocious shoulders. In “Genius”, Stonesthrow narrates his heartbreak from meeting a genius child while studying English literature. The boy is the aptly-named Leon Noel. Their tragic friendship leads Stonesthrow to reflect on what genius entails: “Genius, in its singularity, always seems to imply a detachment from the sublunary world, its proud possessor ever ready to guard and protect a wisdom which he owns but never – somehow, for its uniqueness, for its strange and uncanny characteristics – manages to reveal.” It’s also deeply lonely.
Leon’s an unquenchable questioner: “He asked my name, and, repeating it, savored the word. It was something, I noticed, that he did with just about every new word that he learned. I would soon come to see that he was compulsively curious.” Stonesthrow hangs out with Leon in part to bask in his unexpected turns of phrase. “He was a perfect fund of these ingenious little trifles.” The same could be said of Duane and Mrs. Sweetshrub, but Leon’s come out like a geyser, like a torrent, overwhelming him: “Where did all this stuff come from?” he wonders.
Such gift, however, comical in innocent infancy, turns to vanity with the onset of adolescence. Stonesthrow forgives this sin – “Vanity is hardly an anomaly when it comes to genius.” – even as he concludes that it carved a wedge between their friendship: “Forming his character in an oblique way, however, inculcated a certain vanity in him, the upshot of which carried with it a good deal of pedantry, dogmatism, quibbling, and perfectionism.” As Leon grows up, his sweetness melts away, leaving only a withdrawn, arrogant loner who throws tantrums at teachers. A homosexual fling at school results in expulsion but anyway he had already started showing signs of indifference to education, squandering early promises of a bright future. Deeper and deeper in the silo of his own self he takes to drugs, consummating his self-destruction helplessly narrated by Stonesthrow.
Others, however, not as gifted, manage to grow up and go into business, all the while having nothing but contempt for their inferiors. Such is the case of Irving Biegel in “Watergraphs”, former assistant curator at a museum, now in the antiques business privately dealing in prints, rare books, autographs, waiting to strike it rich by identifying the worth of what the untrained eye dismissed as worthless. Clearly educated, his education didn’t form that gentle, sensitive personality that Cicero believed was the outcome of a humanist education. Biegel is contemptuous of everyone, especially of Boston and Bostonians. “The regional working-class Boston accent had to be among the ugliest displays of vocal abuse of the English language in the waking world”, we’re told. “In Boston he always felt as if he had landed in an outback of primitives, Hottentots, and aborigines!” The misanthrope is a popular creature in Theroux’s limited gallery of grotesques: many characters are like Biegel, he just shuffles the target of contempt. Biegel hatred of Bostonians is unhinged: “He almost couldn’t bear to hide his contempt for the tasteless and the uninitiated, for, while his ongoing battle with the world was fought only on the field of his mind, he radiated a great and somewhat forbidding authority in matters touching on his profession.” His comeuppance comes from one of those uncultured degenerates, an old lady who outbids him at an auction for a bundle of worthless papers, not knowing unlike him that amidst them there lies the rarest autograph in US history: the signature of Button Gwinnett on the Declaration of the Independence. His wiles are no match to the candid simpleton.
Irving Biegel isn’t trying to improve his uncouth brethren; he’s content to bemoan decadence; that’s a characteristic of Therouvian protagonists, usually they abhor the pervasive diminishment of standards, or they romanticize idyllic pasts, especially idyllic because of traits that make them loathsome to modern sensibilities. Theroux debuted with Three Wogs, a trio of novellas about English natives clashing with dirty foreigners. That book ran the almost entire gamut of chief motivations for his characters: one is to despise present times; another is to improve primitive people, who nevertheless assert their vulgarity in the face of powerless sophistication. In “Mrs. Proby Gets Hers”, Mrs. Proby romanticizes the past days when her late husband, Bernard, courter her in South Kensington: “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”. In “The Wife of God”, Lady Therefore rhapsodizes lyrically about a bygone England lost to the base customs of modernity: “Shall all this have been lost forever: the stately rooms at Osterley, Marble Hill, and Kole; the weekends down to Cowes, when bold-hearted men, smelling of leather and ancient sack, strode out from the feudal donjons of their fathers, across the avenues and coppices of their estates, shooting grouse and stalking golden deer; the copses and thickets of Glastonbury, rich in holy thorn, where Christ had spent so many happy days in His teenage years with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea?” Theroux is masterful at the palatial pitch and seigneurial syntax of the resentful.
“An English Railroad” looks like a fragment Theroux scrapped from Three Wogs. The nameless narrator finds yet another garrulous talker, a raconteur of the past, whose nostalgia takes a dark turn very quickly when he starts complaining about England’s downfall as society, empire, identity ever since it was overrun by the dregs that crawled to the center from the empire’s former corners. Major Tryps is your ordinary bloke in the pub going on about past greatness, a time of social harmony: “All were content with their lot on life. It was the land they loved, Britannia, the lovely mealy land. A golden meadow.” Like Lady Wherefore, he needn’t take a break to catch his breath when bestowing a benison upon the good old times: “‘It was Albion then. Land of the Rose. Great Britain,’ he said. ‘A Great house with its rolling parkland, hothouses, orangeries, and stables, elegant deer, serene lakes, immemorial oaks, rose gardens amid lawns, terraces, sheltered walks, meandering long footpaths, and endless vistas from curated landscapes by blue-paved fountain-basins, where, for visitors, servants in lofty vestibules stood at attention, stiff and proud in plush and powder, when a mere touch of an embroidered bell-rope brought instant and obsequious service, when platoons of grooms-‘”
His interlocutor timidly tries to intervene (“But when you stop to think of-“; “I remember back in-“; “But if you’re willing to reason-“, etc.), but Major Tryps’ energy is as expansive as the former empire: “‘The very air was Saxon then, soft-paced people in outlying farms, buxom dairymaids, a cow’s sweet face peering through the window, gardens asprout, the good old days when bills were paid once a year, for such was the custom of the gentry”, he drones on. And the source of this harmony is the racial sameness, for “of course no Jews or hairy Bolsheviks back then squatting with their families there in Golders Green or over in Stamford Hill or other subdistricts of Stoke Newington, nope, not by a long shot.” The past did have its share of inferior specimens, but they didn’t loiter abusively: “They knew their places!” That was then, now’s a nightmare: “‘Now it’s all human bumph, Pakis, babus and pishabs, greasy bean-eating Eyeties in business selling sandwiches, towelheads, Frogs – ‘surrender monkeys’ we called them back in 1944 – uphill gardeners, Lord and Lady Canustandthem, Maltese pimps, oiks, snotlaps, towel-headed Sikhs ready to bite your arms off, and of course the Irish bog-trotters, all mad as a bag of ferrets.’” Major Tryps, stalwart pillar of national identity, living time capsule, keeping alive lexical preciosities like “nigger” and “wog”, lest younger generations forget them by determent of usage.
Those nostalgics, having been defeated by reality, have only the lying lilt of lyricism. Theroux knows everything about how language deceives. A satirist, he has always blurred the line between realism and romance. Often the fable and fairy-tale penetrate his more serious texts. “Childe Roland”, a Three Wogs novella, begins with “Once upon a time, in the heroic days when Harold Harefoot ruled the island” and ends with “the only possible way one might ever possibly believe he could live happily ever after.” Tough Poets Press has released a volume titled Fables, which collects the three illustrated fables he published in the 1970s: The Schinocephalic Waif (1975), The Great Wheadle Tragedy (1975), Master Snickup's Cloak (1979), minus the artwork, plus other unpublished fables. But it’s hard to define what is fable. The first story in Early Stories, “A Woman with Sauce”, opens with: “Mrs. Capitalupo might have been my mother-in-law. It was a fate I was spared, as to how touches directly upon the discovery I made of a certain secret of hers which in the course of things nevertheless lost me the fair maiden I rightly should have won. Discovery, secret, fair maiden: I realize these are the phrases of fairy tales, but fairy tales also have to do with ogres, haven’t they?”
No story irradiates a bigger fabular feel than “Summer Bellerophon; or, The Agonies of James Querpox”. No other feels tonally more akin to Theroux’s masterpiece, Darconville’s Cat. Both are about a teacher in a women’s college who falls in love with a student whom he idolizes and idealizes via language, transfiguring her into a goddess. Bellerophon is the name of a mythic Greek hero, famed for taming Pegasus and killing the Chimera. In a way, those are the two ingredients the story is made of. The Chimera is Summer in Querpox’s eyes, drenched in myth thanks to the lofty words Theroux lends to him. She’s veiled in poetry, poeticized, being poetry’s symbol since the Greeks the winged Pegasus, whose favorite watering hole was the Pirene fountain, a sacred spot for the Muses. For a concise description of Theroux’s process, we can turn to the Romantics, say Novalis: “The world must be romanticized. So its original meaning will again be found.” To put it prosaically, writing is an assault on cliché. “By investing the commonplace with a lofty significance, the ordinary with a mysterious aspect, the familiar with the prestige of the unfamiliar, the finite with the semblance of infinity, thereby I romanticize it.” As such, Theroux must convince us that at least to Querpox this ordinary girl looks like a goddess. His attempt is not shabby: “The girl was strikingly good-looking and regarded by many as Scandinavian because of her carriage, poise, fine bone structure, and shiny blond hair. She had presence. There was an air of springtime in her quiet smile. Her fine golden tresses surrounded a face – O paradise! O sweet Renaissance garden! – that was an oval of almost faultless beauty, backlit with soft alabaster light, its lines, from her perfect temples to the delicate perfectly straight lines of her philtrum to the slim, delicate, ivory volutes of her nostrils, sculpted as if Phidias himself. She had the milk-white shoulders of Elpis and walked in a lilt, at certain times with a long stride and at other times with a careful colt-like steps. She was as tall as Dido, and her skin, candle-pale, was exceptionally striking when tanned, as dark and bore-smooth as stained mahogany that has been rubbed to a fine luster. Her gentle eyes, which had a pure clarity to them, were a mild unclouded green like daylight through seawater, brightly clear, and soft as a gazelle’s.”
Querpox, who’s a bright fellow himself, a math teacher, develops a crush when he first sees Summer playing Beatrice in Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling: “A perplexing mysterious fire had split some rock in him that night, and in an instant he knew that after so many years had passed, years of bleak solipsism, he had found the one passion that was stronger than his mistrust of himself, a revolutionary transfiguration, however, that compounded that mistrust even more.” Since Theroux’s gliding over his creatures, supplying the style, he sympathizes with the Word’s power to veil the concrete; but at the same time he retains enough detachment from awe at his own craft to see that this path leads only to delusion. Even Querpox realizes that he worships an eidolon: “It was tunnel vision. His insight demanded a kind of blindness, his ardor isolation. He wanted to know exactly nothing of her parents, her address, her home life, no potentially limiting facts, no thorny intrusive details to spoil their – their, thinking the word he tremulously closed his eyes – still frail and unconventional distinction, the fairy-tale exceptionalism of it all.” In fairy-tales you get of course an ideal, not reality. He sees himself as a prince who’ll break the fatal spell harming her, the spell of her “being ostracized by her rich and egregious beauty, helplessly longing for the deliverance of a special love, eagerly awaiting, under the light of a pale moon, say spell of fate, with patience, trust, simplicity, and organic growth, to be transported, helplessly, by an enchanted love, taking her unawares, to some superlative and peerless, enviable and unsurpassable kingdom, like a disguised or unknown princess, which Querpox alone would provide.” If you’re thinking this sounds stalky as hell, don’t worry, Theroux is away ahead of you, for the next paragraph is: “Or was he deluded entirely?”
This is the territory of Lolita, not because of an older man lusting after a young girl (Summer is seventeen), but because Querpox dissolves her particularity into a set of whims. I don’t know if this story’s genesis precedes Darconville’s Cat, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did because he improves on the ethical problem behind idealization. In the novel, we are privy to enough scenes showing Alaric Darconville’s amour, Isabel Rawsthorne, as an autonomous entity to knowingly infer the chasm between her and the goddess worshipped by Darconville. Isabel is an ordinary, crude, insecure young woman made of the same banal stock as the TV-loving, bubble-gum-chewing all-American middle-class girl as Dolores Haze, who has nothing to do with the “Lolita” in Humbert Humbert’s deranged mind. We can see the process by which the mind plays tricks on both of them. But Summer Bellerophon doesn’t get the necessary autonomy for that to work.
Theroux does make it clear that Querpox has had a history of mental illness before meeting Summer, the aforementioned “years of bleak solipsism”. Solipsism, the belief that nothing exists outside the self, in fact suits Querpox’s obsession with Summer, for far from tethering him to reality, it uproots him since he reinvents her to meet such impossible standards that she becomes humanly unreachable, making any contact impossible, ruining his sense of worth, making him even lonelier than before.
This story is filled with references to “snowy-white arms”, “fairy house of dreams”, and the word “enchantment” and its cognates: “Her name alone, with its sonorous and lilting supra-enchantment”; “At times she appeared to be dreamily absent, a tranquil daze of preoccupied enchantment, princess in another world.” The girls’ names (Portia and Perdite Falconbridge, Jemima Gateacre, Pippa Beddingfield, etc.) are thus described: “Brash young beauty gave them an enchanted, sort of foreign look that, reflected in their faces, told how dangerous it was to have a personal stake in loving them.” Re-enchantment was the purpose of Romanticism: imbuing the world with mystery again after natural philosophers replaced an uncorruptible Heaven with scientific sky, showing there was no God there, just Newtonian laws at work. Writers have long been worried about the imagination going unchecked: on the one hand, even science needs a bit of poetry, hypotheses, interpretation; on the other hand, a capricious imagination becomes prey to self-delusion. A materialist, dull, pragmatic mind can’t generate new ideas, but a mind ensnared by fantasy produces too many wrong ones: “And yet all the while, specifically because of her, his days, although poeticized by sweet expectation, were surrounded by subtle shades of fear.” Turning Summer into an unattainable prospect, Querpox recedes from reality deeper into reverie, making him terrified of acting in the world, until he’s alone with himself, hardly a safe, healthy place: “He conjectured in the close shadows that everything he was experiencing was a dream, was inside his head. It was a circular kind of nightmare, for who was dreaming? He began to question whether reality was real, sustaining arguments in his mind that others either did not exist or that their existence could not be proved.” The tragic finale is telegraphed early on.
Theroux also dwells in more concrete terrors. In “Blackrobe”, the camp counselor tells the narrator, “You’re always trying to get out of the world.” This is word for word what Theroux said in the 1991 interview: “A psychiatrist once told me, ‘You’re always trying to get out of the world.’ So? We all have to manage that one day. Maybe I’m only practicing my technique.” In “Genius”, Stonesthrow graduates in 1968, the year Theroux defended his PhD at the University of Virginia. Querpox teaches at an women’s college, like Theroux once did. Fans of Theroux can detect the offshoots from autobiographic seeds he planted here and there. I was especially interested in “Blackrobe”, in my view the book’s heart alongside “Genius”. “Blackrobe” follows a boy sent to summer camp to cure himself of bedwetting. Back in 2017, Theroux’s younger brother, Paul, published Mother Land, an autobiographical noted at the time for its vicious and unsettling caricature of siblings and other relatives. There was a character called Floyd who wet his bed until a later age. We can put to rest speculation which Theroux brother Floyd’s supposed to be. In “Blackrobe”, the narrator indicates, Proust-like, his name at the end: “I think, at least partially, because I also had the same first name as the French author, Alexandre Dumas.” It’s a moving story about what it’s like to suffer from this disorder, covering the shame and isolation it produces, the struggle to live feeling abnormal, a difficulty compounded by the lack of understanding from kids and adults, who think cruel treatments can set him straight. In “Genius”, Stonesthrow was also a bedwetter, and feels drawn closer to Leon who shares this malady, “a stigma that is also an enigma”. Stonesthrow says: “I also had the ill-luck to have a sarcastic and unfeeling uncle who was a brute to me, a priest, by the way, whose mockery over my bedwetting at age six or so bordered on child abuse.” Stonesthrow hopes to shelter Leon from loneliness, but life gets in the way. “Blackrobe” and “Genius” wear their hearts on their sleeves, they're unfiltered emotion. Theroux reserves sarcasm for his pedants, but his tone is compassionate when dealing with shortcomings and vulnerability. Again, it’s a pre-modernist tone, so frank and unironic it’s in constant danger of crossing the line of corniness. It’s a testament to Theroux’s mastery that it never does.
In “Chosen Locksley Swims the Tiber”, another autobiographical detail makes its way into Chosen, aka Yarrow, a popular model who gives up the fashion world of fame and fatuity and goes into a retreat in a Trappistine convent. Theroux did live two years in a Trappist monastery. To swim the Tiber, the river adjacent to Rome, is an expression that means converting to Catholicism. I think the power of these stories are inseparable from Theroux’s Catholic and conservative outlook. Rhetorically, I think he’d be much diminished without that background. For a Catholic, the Word is God and so it deserves the utmost consecration; but Catholicism also has a history of using words to praise God and His creation, which in my view helps a lot to explains Theroux’s thaumasmus mode. But the sermon is a public endeavor, it requires an audience. Chosen chooses seclusion and silence, but the preacher lives in the world and speaks it. Theroux’s not satisfied by it, he challenges it. He shows living as a complicated turmoil of opposing wills, disappointments, self-delusions, regrets; but there’s not an iota of cynicism in what he says. Theroux has often written about someone trying to improve someone else, with comically destructive results. Although the Catholic’s duty is to steer his brethren in the right path, uplift has often been a mask for oppression. Self-improvement is better than improvement, and example is better than imposition. Discontent is out lot: Biegel loses his millionaire signature; Angela remains under the thumb of her controlling mother, Mrs. Capitalupo; Querpox abandons all hope; Leon rejects Stonesthrow’s attempts to help him. Chosen entombs herself for consolation, too high a toll to pay. Theroux has no formula for contentment; instead he lets art work through its indirect ways, giving us glimpses of a better life where curiosity, beauty, sensibility, kindness, equanimity and magnanimity reign supreme, a glorious vision, but so hard to bring forth.