Not short stories but novellas. While I disliked the tone of most of the stories, and much of the subject matter, I enjoyed the dollops of sophisticated prose.
The companion volume, called Early Stories, is half as long and less bloated. it is a better distillation of Theroux’s capabilities and eccentricities. These features of his writing provide the main entertainment value. You might compare him to William Gass, who was seldom pleasant to read, but always informative. These authors did not seek to give readers warm and fuzzies. They did not want to be cuddled up with, hot cocoa in hand, beside the warm hearth, on a quiet summer day. And yet, I found in his searing prose, a complex balm. This concoction is frequently surprising in its audacity, the way it affronts everyday sensibilities. Disregarding the fact that some people are therefore offended by the words Gass and Theroux committed to paper, Theroux in particular also, in this volume, writes at great length in a tone of self-pity. That is to say, his characters pity themselves often and for protracted periods, especially in “Envenoming Junior,” where the family dynamic draws autobiographic parallels.
In other instances, the existence of family members proves nothing but the bane our protagonist, as in “Revelation Hall,” which is my favorite story of the bunch. It details the travails of a blossoming bookworm who is ensnared, or one might say enslaved, by her taskmaster father, who is in turn depicted as enslaved to the ideals of his Jehovah’s Witness sect. From within, she discovers the fruits of literature and nurtures the garden of her soul. The tale contains reams of unnecessary facts, but plenty of depraved charm. It ends horrifically, yet contains within the shocking climax, the relief of a life free of the chains of ignorance and dogma that Theroux spent almost 90 pages wrapping around her. This was the most memorable story and provides a deep commentary on a divisive topic. It gives you the sense that if channeled differently, Theroux’s powers of storytelling might have risen to greater heights. I feel that his audience and influence are sorely hobbled by his indulgence in trivia, as Stephen Moore once intimated. But no artist of Theroux’s caliber can so easily be summed up. Most readers will likely never fully decide whether he is a genius or a clever spinner of contradictory ideas.
Theroux accumulates facts in notebooks and shoehorns them into these stories – that was my impression. He expands upon his subject until the whole story becomes explication of a subject. This gets repetitive. “The Corot Lecture” is simply an essay on Corot. Well-written, but not exactly a story. No plot. One-dimensional characters. Theroux tries to conceal this fact by feebly interpolating commentary from students during the so-called lecture, and having the professor complain about how they aren’t paying attention. It contains a huge amount of information related to art, history, and biography of the artist.
But you don’t read Theroux for plot. If you are, you will stop reading him pretty quick. “Rolf Vowels” is a series of descriptions about a truly deplorable character, with no redeeming qualities, who, once he ends up in prison, discovers the Bible and seeks forgiveness. Throughout this collection Theroux quotes the Bible hundreds of times, adding chapter and verse for good measure. He also quotes Shakespeare, almost in total, and inserts foreign phrases with obnoxious frequency. It is clear that he has studied other cultures, read up on history, thoroughly digested and interpreted the entire scriptural canon, and delved deeply into art, literature, poetry and other fields. This is all very impressive, but his method remains disagreeable in its lathering of vicious descriptions of “fat people” and other commonplace groups, which he spoofs at great and tedious length.
“An Interview with the Poet Cora Wheatears,” was painful to read. The sentence structure was very smooth, argumentative, and astute. It tells of an interview over a fancy meal of a famous fictitious poet in her nineties. She holds all famous poets in contempt and cuts them down one by one. There are a lot of troubling passages here for anyone who reads too deeply into gender politics. It boils down to another trivia session with the author, and suffers from the major flaw which permeates the entirety of his fictional output, that is, all of the characters sound like Theroux, and when they engage in dialogue, sound like they are talking to themselves. Even the story about seminary school kids “Madonna Pica” features school boys quoting the Bard, dropping four-page expository jeremiads on scripture, which he couples with jokes and random facts culled from the Discovery Channel and Jeopardy. These kids are so educated that their speech is laughably, impossibly polished. They speak like Oscar Wilde wrote. This issue detracts from most of Theroux’s characters and dissolves the suspension of disbelief thoroughly.
“Grasso Sovrapesso” was a story about overeating, bulking up one’s lipid counts, gaining gravitational mass. It was like watching that Monty Python skit which ends on the “wafer-thin mint” line, but watching it continuously for 50 pages. It adds plenty of minutiae from the realm of theater. As in the other stories in this volume, the characters are not memorable, even though they are described with cartoonish features, because they don’t do anything. They rarely effect any change in the outcome of the story aside from speaking about their opinions. There was some drama here, but it gets drowned in the ocean of didacticism.
“The Brawn of Diggory Priest” was a strange, out-of-place historical story which showcases what Theroux is capable of when he is not trying to be funny. The style reminded me of Melville. I enjoyed it, though it was short on plot and long on detail.
Theroux has an irritating habit of reusing the same phrases. For instance, he uses: “Who was it who said:” and follows it up with an unattributed quote. He mixes it up with: “Wasn’t it ____ who said:” and he does this at least a hundred times in this book. Many of the quotes only tangentially relate to the thematic elements under discussion. I have never met a person who quotes other writers the way a Theroux character does. But utilizing unrealistic caricatures is not a crime. The author accomplishes much through Socratic bickering, rhetorical questions, self-corrections, and by challenging the reader to engage with uncomfortable and ripe topics, repeatedly drilling us in the Latin and French and German phrases we seemingly should know by heart, or have the prerogative to look up.
I would first recommend reading his two long novels before you bother with his shorter works. Once you appreciate his style, you may come to see the value in his other works, and in so doing, will no doubt notice the flaws.
Tough Poets Press has published 1700 pages of new Theroux thus far. I hope they keep going, because I have a feeling we have not seen the extent of Theroux’s accomplishment. He may be saving the best for last.