Alexander (Louis) Theroux Miles Donald - Essay

Miles Donald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗