The Primary Colors

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In undertaking to write three separate essays whose topics are blue, yellow, and red, novelist, poet, fable-writer, and English stylist par excellence Alexander Theroux (older brother to the more prolific Paul Theroux) has given himself an assignment whose apparent simplicity belies its enormous scope. The entire visible world is, after all, constituted by combinations of the presence or absence of these three colors. That Theroux successfully creates a compelling work of literature out of this is as much a tribute, one suspects, to Theroux’s good relationship to one or several unnamed librarians as to his own writing and research skills.

Each of these three essays might rightly be described as a lengthy, nonthematic meditation. Theroux does not pose as a philosopher trying to revolutionize art or color theory. Instead, he is more of a historian/poet/guru trying to encourage the reader to know and experience the colors blue, yellow, and red in a new way.

A passage from the beginning of his first essay, “Blue,” gives a taste of the style of Theroux’s prose:

It is the color of ambiguous depth, of the heavens and of the abyss at once; blue is the color of the shadow side, the tint of the marvelous and the inexplicable, of desire, of knowledge, of the blue movie, of blue talk. . . . It is the color of anode plates, royalty at Rome, smoke, distant hills, postmarks, Georgian silver, thin milk, and hardened steel. . . .

Such a passage ushers a reader quickly through several big conceptual ideas (depth, the heavens, desire, and so forth), and then through a world of concrete details. The great fun of such passages comes from the odd juxtapositions, the placement of the everyday (postmarks, smoke, thin milk) with the historic (royalty at Rome), and the poetic (distant hills), each detail suggestive of realms of experience, each treated as momentarily equal, the way all details on the ground may appear as equal when viewed from on high.

With virtually all of human experience and history as his territory, one of Theroux’s favorite games is to swoop down from these dizzying heights to explore a few selected details of a particular territory before moving on. Thus, for example, he spends several paragraphs discussing blue dyes and tints, and reveals a “safe and simple” method for making blue tint out of fermented human urine and indigo powder, which, he assures the reader, has an odor no worse than that of vegetable dyes. At least he does not include any discussion of how to ferment human urine; his purpose after all, is not truly to instruct, but to lead experiments in thought, association, and knowledge.

One of the challenges Theroux is constantly facing is how to cram as much knowledge as he can into these essays, and yet preserve the appearance of the entire essay as a unified whole. Toward this end, he labors constantly to move from a consideration of a color in one context to a consideration of the same color in another context by means of whatever bridge is available. Thus, a discussion of the yellows in Van Gogh’s painting leads to a discussion of the yellows in Gauguin’s painting, which reminds Theroux of a speech Gauguin gave in 1900 in which he defended the “poor whites” of Tahiti against the peril of the Chinese lobby, which in turn reminds him of the uses of the color yellow as the mysterious self within, which Conrad suggests in Heart of Darkness (1902) when he has Marlow describe his trip up the Congo as a trip “into the yellow.” For a reader, the effect is a bit like listening to the improvisations of a jazz virtuoso soloist, adapting a series of familiar themes while fitting them all into one overriding theme. A constant challenge is, how long will he be able to keep it going?

Painters and painting naturally play a large part in Theroux’s discussion of primary colors, but not many readers will be able to keep up with all of his references. In a typical passage in the essay on red, he quickly compares shades of red in Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Apostles, Emil Nolde’s The Last Supper, Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban, and Henri Matisse’s Harmony in Red, pausing for only the briefest of descriptions. It is likely that more than a few of his readers will be unable to follow the majority of his references, and that many of his readers will feel left out of the conversation at some point. Theroux manages, however, to achieve this density of cultural reference with a surprisingly light touch, partly because he frequently achieves the boyish “gee-whiz” attitude of a devoted fan who is impressed by how red Saint Peter’s robe in The Four Apostles appears, and is glad to be able to say so. This same lightness of tone serves...

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The Primary Colors

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This book is an unstructured monologue on the subjects of blue, yellow, and red, delivered by an extremely well-read, well- traveled, well-connected man with an insatiable appetite for information of any kind and an astonishing ability to absorb and recall it. Blue, Theroux says in his first essay, is “the symbol of the baby boys in America, mourning in Borneo, tribulation to the American Indian, and the direction South in Tibet...Chows have blue tongues. Potato spray in Ireland is blue...It is the solid endearing color of the locomotive in Watty Piper’s THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD.” He names twelve songs by Duke Ellington with some shade of blue in the title. He provides the reader with the formula for the blue paint that covers his own bedroom walls, as well as the recipe for a “Blue Devil” cocktail. He celebrates the use of blue in painting from Mayan murals to Andy Warhol’s BLUE LIZ AS CLEOPATRA, in poetry from Vergil to Ezra Pound. He relates an anecdote in which Liberace inadvertently turned a lasagna blue by mistaking Comet cleanser for Parmesan cheese. It’s as though Theroux has made a concordance of everything he had ever experienced and was able to pull out all of the references of blue and relate them to a good friend over Stilton (“King of the English Blues”) and port (“oh, in wines, the splendiferous varieties of reds”).

Theroux’s observations are sometimes a page or two in length, sometimes packed by the score into one paragraph. If this were a scholarly work that required a reference list, this list would be many times longer than the text itself. His comments frequently begin with “You’ll recall that,” “Of course,” “Who can ever forget,” and other phrases that assume a kindred erudition in the reader. Yet his delivery is so affable that he will not alienate the majority of readers who will have to take his word for it.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 2017.

Chicago Tribune. August 28, 1994, XIV, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, June 15, 1994, p. 832.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 84.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, December 4, 1994, p. 90.

The New Yorker. LXX, October 17, 1994, p. 121.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, June 6, 1994, p. 48.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 25, 1994, p. REV8.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 11, 1994, p. 9.