Alexander (Louis) Theroux Essay - Critical Essays

Theroux, Alexander (Louis)


Alexander (Louis) Theroux 1939–

American novelist.

Theroux is known for his ornately stylized prose and elaborate word plays. Though his themes are serious, Theroux's presentation is in a comic, sometimes satiric, vein.

His novels are unique and critically controversial. His first novel, Three Wogs, for example, gives three accounts of racial prejudice in England in such an energetic style that it is called alternately "exasperating" and "refreshing." With Theroux's recent work, Darconville's Cat, the controversy continues. As the force of this novel lies in its style rather than in its content, some critics have accused Theroux of losing contact with his characters in cascades of verbalism, repetition, and obscure turns of phrase. Other critics, however, find a consistency between the matter and manner of Theroux's works, suggesting that Darconville's Cat, like Three Wogs, is as much about love, betrayal, and life as it is about words.

(See also CLC, Vol. 2 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Diane Johnson

"Wogs" are what English bigots call dark-skinned non-Englishmen. [Alexander Theroux's first novel Three Wogs] is a book in which types of English bigot—old ladies, aristocrats, working men—encounter three Wogs—a Chinese, an Indian, and an African. It is not a novel but three long stories, successful in varying degrees, given the initial romantic proposition that all Wogs are good, because they are uncorrupted by civilization. And all Englishmen, supposedly civilized, are bad, premises one doesn't really bother to challenge in a comic and highly stylized work like this. Because English bigots are uncomfortably like American ones, it is alarming enough without trying to be believable.

In the first story, Mrs. Proby, American Alexander Theroux's first target, "gets hers": a fatal blow-dart from Mr. Yunnum Fun, her grocer, to whom she has been systematically rude for years. This seems to me at least partly to justify her apprehensions about him ("He's sneaky"). In the third story a posh homosexual cleric tries to dissuade his African choirmaster from marrying. The best story describes an exchange between a young red-neck named Roland and a saintly little Indian named Dilip at a train depot….

A cautionary word about the style, which at its best, offers happy surprises; at other times exasperation…. The language is always interesting and can be rewarding. But you have to be in the mood.

Diane Johnson, "Wog Good, Us Bad," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1972 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), Vol. VI, No. 7, February 13, 1972, p. 8.

The Times Literary Supplement

There have been good modern novels written about the British by "outsiders", usually Indians and West Indians. All About Mr. Hatterr and The Prevalence of Witches are outstanding examples. Alexander Theroux is an American, and Three Wogs has the impact and the slightly fantastic quality shared by these two forerunners. Indeed, the proliferating energy of the style is the most remarkable thing about it, together with a love for words found only in the very largest dictionaries: "cep", "haptic", "syzygy", "mattoid", "benthic"….

The total effect is very refreshing. Such an original and beautifully written first novel doesn't come along often.

"Colour Chart," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3722, July 6, 1973, p. 783.

Miles Donald

Three Wogs by Alexander Theroux apparently consists of three separate vignettes of racial prejudice in England. I say 'apparently' because the actual subject matter of the stories hardly counts; their real concern is Mr. Theroux's unrequited love affair with his own prose style. Since my accusation is of the kind which has been levelled by most philistines against most great stylists, let me quote one of the many sentences in which Mr. Theroux convicts himself of being drunk in charge of a thesaurus:

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 own enemies, or an act of God could ever hope to bring to an end.

That of course has nothing to do with high tea, or the English; it merely reflects Mr. Theroux's narcissistic pleasure in his own powers of observation. Still, annoying as such a sentence may be, it doesn't come close to the central problem of the book, which is that it turns on an American's grotesque misapprehension of England, English life and that version of the English language spoken outside the United States. The central character of each story is a huge repository of unwanted and misplaced slang. Mr. Theroux's defence may be that he is attempting to parody; but parody like any other form has to select, to suggest, and when we encounter an upper-class cleric saying 'What I mean is, when she'll bubble, he'll squeak. Wouldn't that be more bang on?', I feel as if we are in at the start of some new and perverse form of lexical game, in which a prize is awarded for the most persistently unidentifiable assembly of idioms. And there is something particularly distasteful in putting important social issues to such a use.

Miles Donald, "Shaker Country," in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 86, No. 2209, July 20, 1973, p. 95.∗

Jack Beatty

"None would wish it longer." Thus Dr. Johnson on Paradise Lost. Thus any reader not named Theroux on Darconville's Cat. Still, if you have a month to spare and want to put muscle on your vocabulary, you might dip into it, only go slowly, one toe at a time, as if the book were a Maine bay. It's actually a romance about a young professor at a Virginia girls' college who falls in love, as one might fall into the maw of Mount Saint Helens, with an even younger student, whom he courts, and is on the point of marrying when she calls it off. She (Isabel) loves a sailor, you see. Darconville, the spurned professor, takes revenge by writing this novel, which, among many other things, is a summa of misogyny. Darconville's bad luck in love is not the main source of this spleen; it is the teaching of Dr. Crucifer, a gypsy scholar who haunts the attic of Harvard's Adams House, where Darconville goes to teach after being jilted by Isabel. Dr. Crucifer is a self-administered eunuch, an erudite woman-hater, and a great snoring bore. He is a preposterous creation, and as he goes on and on and on, spewing his polysyllabic prejudices, even readers named Theroux must weary, stumble, finally fall, too exhausted to scale yet another immense, small-printed page. Page? Better call it a Calvary, for though this book begins in comedy, it ends in torture. Yet for the first 50 pages I thought I was scouting one of those oddball American masterpieces, like...

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Eve Ottenberg

Alexander Theroux hates injustice. In his first book, Three Wogs, he swoops down on it with a savage indignation that outstrips the prose. The racism of the white Englishmen and women who parade through this novel is at once his target and motivation. He is constantly on the attack—relentless, merciless, nasty. He has high ideals which lead him always to present his characters at their worst. His unwillingness to compromise on how people should treat each other is only matched by his views on prose, expressed in his essay "Theroux Metaphrastes" and reconfirmed in his newest novel, Darconville's Cat, the style of which is ornate, copious, digressive, modeled on that of Sterne and Joyce. In short, he is a writer determined to prove his point—something essential in matters of style and social justice. As long as he was focusing his talents on how racism corrodes character, this determination yielded that rare pleasure in contemporary fiction of seeing a complete social world through luxurious prose. But in another context, the love story of Darconville's Cat, Theroux's avenging angels are a bit out of place. Indeed, at times they descend upon the reader like a pack of harpies….

That Darconville could all but cohabitate with Isabelle for four years and yet have so little idea of who she is would, if such things didn't happen every day, be too incredible to be believed. The same could be said of Isabel. But since this novel is written mainly from Darconville's point of view, it takes the form of an attack on her character. Hence the harpies, i.e., the tirades of Dr....

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I remember noticing at intervals as I read [Alexander Theroux's "Three Wogs"] that the author was a dictionary buff—a writer eager to use the precisely correct word even where literary prudence, that wonderfully self-denying sanity, would prefer imprecision to lower the authorial profile. But only at intervals. For most of its length "Three Wogs" was uncluttered with the egotistical sublime, directing the reader's eye toward a social scene at once freestanding and solidly alive. I don't recall an American fictional debut in the 1970's that created a stronger image of the writer as responsive man—lover of the human variousness that's Out There, natural enemy of self-enclosure.

Traces of the gifts...

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John Leonard

Mr. Theroux can't get through a sentence, much less a paragraph, without sticking his thumb into the reader's eye with a word we've never heard or a word he just makes up…. After 100 pages [of "Darconville's Cat"] you will want to punch his face out with a thesaurus. Trying too hard is always having to say I'm sorry….

Mr. Theroux, like P. G. Wodehouse and the lamentable Dickens, leans on names for humorous effect. Miss Xystine Chapelle, as student body president, is permissible, maybe. But shouldn't the line have been drawn at Guggenheim Grant? Mr. Theroux, in addition, puns promiscuously. His characters drink tea at the Seldom Inn. They dance to the music of a band named The Uncalled Four. They...

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J. O. Tate

If Sidney's Astrophel and Stella had been composed by Urquhart of Cromarty; if Poe's "To Helen" had been written by the Melville of Moby Dick; if the cookie-cutter form of the Harlequin romance had been glossed by Boethius—then the result might have been the sublime mulligan [satura>satire] served up to us by Alexander Theroux. (pp. 620-21)

The substance of Darconville's Cat is Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl. The end is Death in Venice. But the "novel" or "romance" breaks off into the form of Menippean satire, or anatomy, and proceeds by way of encyclopedic recapitulation of forms: a sonnet, a blank-verse dialogue, a formal oration, a formal essay, a vulgar sermon,...

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