Editor’s note: In September of this year, Steven Moore’s new book, Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, will be released by Zerogram Press. Among other things, I hope this interview whets your appetite for Theroux’s books and that you spend a healthy part of the year reading or rereading him in preparation for Moore’s book. Here is a description of Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes: “Since the publication of his first novel in 1972, Alexander Theroux has won great acclaim for his dazzling style and forceful intellect. That first novel, Three Wogs, was named Book of the Year by Encyclopedia Britannica, and his second, Darconville’s Cat, was nominated for the National Book Award. Since then he has gone on to publish 20 more books and has been the subject of several interviews and academic studies. This is the first book-length study of Theroux’s complete body of work-novels, fables and short stories, nonfiction books, poetry, journalism-concluding with a chapter on his contentious relationship with his best-selling brother Paul Theroux. Critic Steven Moore, who has known Theroux for nearly forty years and helped with the publication of some of his books, illuminates Theroux work in a scholarly yet accessible style. While appreciative of most of what Theroux has written, Moore doesn’t shirk from what he regards as some of his weaker efforts in order to provide a balanced evaluation of this unique writer. Moore’s book will appeal to Theroux’s fan base as well as to students of modern American literature”
George Salis: In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, you agreed that one of the reasons Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat remains out of print and not widely read is because of the misogyny that can be found within, even though that is the symptom of a character in the novel named Dr. Crucifer, not a characteristic of the novelist. Time and time again, from Madame Bovary to Ulysses and beyond, why do people, including readers, continue to confuse the characteristics of a fictional character with the characteristics of the author, thereby blacklisting the book in question? Would it be helpful to invoke Barthes’ concept of the death of the author?
Steven Moore: Readers know that a good actor can play a hero or a villain, a virgin or a virago, but they’re reluctant to believe that a novelist is likewise playing a role when writing. Perhaps they’ve heard that budding authors are encouraged to write about what they know and hence assume the attitudes displayed in a novel must be the author’s own, which is admittedly sometimes the case. On the other hand, readers are free to reject books on subjects they find distasteful, and misogyny is certainly a turn-off for many, just as violence is for me (which is why I’ve not read much Cormac McCarthy). To assume Nabokov must have been a pedophile because he wrote Lolita is certainly going too far, but in Theroux’s case, it must be admitted that misogyny does indeed run through much of his writing, though it’s just a subset of his general misanthropy. In Darconville’s Cat, he has fun with misogyny—all those ludicrous books in “The Misogynist’s Library” (chap. 68) and the goofy, almost surrealistic chapter 93 (“Why Don’t You—?”)—though I can sympathize with readers who feel misogyny is no laughing matter. But even they should admire the creative ingenuity of those chapters if they are truly devoted to capital-L Literature, just as maybe someday I’ll learn to privilege McCarthy’s style over his content.
I have conflicting feelings about Barthes’s “death of the author” thesis and the related, older ones on the “intentional fallacy” and New Criticism in general. Yes, ideally we should evaluate a work of literature solely by the words on the page, without reference to the author’s biography or remarks on the work (when available). But that can lead to misinterpretations, of reading things into works that just aren’t there, and—in recent years—to judge older works by inhumanly idealistic values that invariably find them guilty of some deviation or other from political correctness.
GS: Theroux is not afraid of using archaic and rare words. Which of his that he has used are some of your favorites?
SM: I’ve always liked “agathokakological” (DC 542, meaning “composed of good and evil”) and his all-purpose adjective “panfurious,” but mostly they are ephemeral delights. For example, in a letter to the editor on challenging literature, he once wrote “that difficulty increases with candlepower and vision,” and I will stop and marvel at his use of “candlepower” (after looking it up and reminding myself what it means), and then move on to the next unexpected linguistic delight.
GS: When a writer like Theroux is sitting on a wealth of unpublished manuscripts and whose most recent novel could only find a home with Fantagraphics Books, a publisher who specializes in comic books and graphic novels, what does that mean for literature, or at least the type of literature that Theroux writes?
SM: It means literature is in the same downward spiral as most things these days. Fortunately there are small and independent presses that will publish complicated, stylistically extravagant books that the big NYC publishers can’t appreciate (or don’t want to take a chance on), but that means those works will reach a smaller audience. I just read Rodrigo Fresán’s complex and rousing The Dreamed Part, but the fact that it was published by Open Letter rather than Knopf means that few will hear of it or see it in bookstores. I’m currently rereading with unstinted delight Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and was surprised to learn that it actually made the best-seller list in 1966 and went through several hardback printings. I can’t imagine any big publisher accepting a novel like that these days, much less seeing it on any best-seller list. None of them wanted to publish Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity or Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, two of the best novels to appear in the last decade, but the fact that both were eventually published suggests that similar works will continue to appear. But the readership for such novels is smaller than it was in the past, as the big publishers would rightly argue, so what are you going to do?
GS: For someone who hasn’t read Theroux, what would you say as a fan to get them interested in his work?
SM: I would tell them that if they read novels for the plot and/or for admirable characters they can relate to, then Theroux’s not for them. But if you read to be dazzled by a fireworks display of style and want to see the full range of the English language glorified, then he’s your man.
I’d also advise starting at the beginning with Three Wogs: if they don’t like that, they won’t like anything else of his.
GS: What was it like reading an early form of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest through a critical lens? You must have known you were reading a grand product from a grand mind so I’d imagine that critical lens might have been slightly fogged with awe, or were you able to maintain a passionate disinterest, as it were?
SM: Since Dave asked me to read the manuscript to identify chapters that could be eliminated, I had to be more critical than I normally would be. But even those I ID’d were enjoyable, and I told him in my reader’s report that I wish they could all be included. (As it turns out, almost all were; he mostly eliminated other chapters.) The novel did indeed strike me as “a grand product from a grand mind,” though I was incredulous that this wildly innovative work was being published by a major New York publisher; I was working for Dalkey Archive Press at the time, and it was more the kind of thing we would publish than a mainstream press. That was twenty-four years ago, when a few of them were still taking chances on such novels.
GS: As I understand it, there were several hundred or so pages that were cut from Infinite Jest, making it a “lopsided Sierpiński gasket,” as Wallace described it. Do you think this gasket would have been better off intact or is the final form readers know Infinite Jest as, the best form?
SM: I would have preferred Wallace’s own plan, though a 1400-page novel would probably have found fewer readers.
GS: Do you have any specific idea why David Foster Wallace would say that Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men “sucks canal water”? And how would you convince Wallace otherwise?
SM: No idea why he said that, except that he could be a real dickhead sometimes in his literary pronouncements. Women and Men is rather humorless and overly convoluted, which is why Dave probably didn’t like it, but McElroy is obviously a very smart and innovative writer and shouldn’t be insulted like that. Dave was a regular reader of the Review of Contemporary Fiction and I assume he saw my positive review of Women and Men there, so I don’t know what I could have added to change his mind. But for those who enjoy dramatizations of the workings of consciousness, McElroy is superb—though you might want to start with the short Plus before tackling the longer novel.
GS: You’ve had a lot of amazing writers in your circle, including Joseph McElroy, Alexander Theroux, William Gaddis, yet it seems only David Foster Wallace has gotten the full recognition (no pun intended) he deserves and more. Why do you think that is? Did Wallace have a special ingredient in his writing that is missing from the others, or is it about marketing or time, or all the above plus some other voodoo?
SM: There’s a playfulness in his writing, goofiness even, plus a hipness, an openness to simple emotion that those other writers lack (but which Pynchon possesses, which explains his similar popularity). I don’t think his success had anything to do with marketing, but the timing was right: though set in the future, his first two novels captured the cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s/1990s in a fresh, appealing manner—as did The Catcher in the Rye in 1951—and which, like Salinger’s novel, remains attractive.
GS: This question comes from Chris Via: “What would be your number one rule for book reviewers/critics?”
SM: Be kind and fair-minded. Writing a book is hard work (as should go without saying), so focus on the author’s accomplishments, not on his/her perceived shortcomings. And keep in mind that a book review is essentially a consumer’s report: after you’ve correctly identified what kind of book it is and its potential audience, tell them why they may or may not want to read the book. A review shouldn’t be about whether you liked it, but whether they might. I haven’t always followed these rules, but I try to keep them in mind.
GS: You mentioned in an interview that you once tried to write a novel and it taught you that even writing a mediocre novel can be quite difficult, allowing you to appreciate books in general all the more, especially when you look at them through a critical lens. You had given your novel the title Clarinets and Candles. I’m sometimes curious about what ifs, so in the spirit of satiating that curiosity (or fueling it), could you tell me what that novel was about?
SM: It was about a six-month period when I was twenty (fall 1971), when I moved into a small house owed by a bandmate, who played sax and flute. Two young women would often visit us, one who had an unrequited crush on the sax player, and one on whom I had an unrequited crush. So, a slim novel about unrequitedness, if that’s a word. But instead of making the story interesting I spent all my time on aesthetic matters. The novel has fourteen chapters in emulation of a sonnet, and each ends with a sonnet that comments on the preceding chapter. I was enamored with Joyce by the time I wrote it (1974–75), so like Ulysses some chapters were in different forms: one was set like a play, one was structured on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, the final one was in the form of a fable, etc. Lots of literary allusions, of course, and structural devices. (The first line of the novel is “I looked up”—the title of an Incredible String Band album—and the final line is “I looked down.”) My roommate had a clarinet on the fireplace mantle that one of the girls said resembled a candle, hence the alliterative but otherwise meaningless title Clarinets and Candles. I had written a song of that name during the events of the novel, which I recorded on a two-track machine that allowed me to sing and play guitar on one track, and add flute, mandolin, melodica, and sitar on the other. The song is probably better than the novel.
GS: This question also comes from Chris Via: “Are you Evan Dara?”
SM: LOL! I wish. No, I’m not, but that’s very flattering.
GS: I often like to ask people, “What is a novel you think more people should read?” but as a historian of the novel, I feel like that is much too limiting for you, so I’ll invite you to name and comment on as many books as you care to in one sitting.
SM: Oh boy, where to start, or end? I realize my literary tastes are rather eccentric and for that reason am loath to recommend novels to normal readers, but these are the ones that had the greatest impact on me, and on forming that eccentric taste: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (see p. 799 of the second volume of my novel history for the reasons why), Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, all of Joyce, Firbank, Brautigan, and James McCourt, Gaddis’s Recognitions, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, the great American meganovels of the 1970s (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Delany’s Dhalgren, Coover’s Public Burning, Gaddis’s J R, Barth’s LETTERS, Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew), most of P. G. Wodehouse, Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, Markson’s and Spackman’s novels, Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Ríos’s Larva, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Gass’s Tunnel, and Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream, a novel I heard about in the 1970s and never dreamed would be translated. Among younger authors (i.e., younger than I), I like most of what Powers, Maso, Wallace, Vollmann, and Danielewski have written.
My greatest discoveries while writing the novel history were Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story, Murasaki’s Tale of Genji (which I first attempted in the 1970s), Nizami Ganjavi’s Seven Beauties, Judah Alharizi’s Book of Tahkemoni, the anonymous Njal’s Saga, Boccaccio’s Decameron, the so-called “four extraordinary” Chinese novels of the Ming era (and the two more added to that group in the Qing era), Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc, Lyly’s Euphues, Herbert’s Princess Cloria, Furetière’s Bourgeois Romance, Subligny’s Mock Clelia—but I fear the reader’s eyes are glazing over, so I’ll stop there in the 17th century. Writing those two volumes was the greatest literary adventure of my life.
GS: You once said that writing your first two volumes of the history of the novel burnt you out and that you didn’t have it in you to write the third volume. That was about nine years ago. Do you feel the same way or are you starting to feel the itch of taking on the monumental task? Alternatively, do you have a protégé in mind who would continue this project where you’ve left off?
SM: Yes, I still feel that was the right decision, and I haven’t had any desire to resume work on it. As I told Jeff in that interview, I realized I had bitten off more than I could chew, and “There are mundane, personal reasons as well: my typing is deteriorating, concentration shortening, mind wandering, confidence drooping, memory fading. . . .” And that’s gotten worse over the years. I don’t have any protégés in mind, but about two years ago an experimental fiction writer named Grant Maierhofer asked if he could continue the task; I gave him my blessings and even mailed him my folder of notes on volume 3, but he eventually came to his senses and decided against it.
GS: What do you think defines (so far) the 21st-century North American novel?
SM: “Diversity” would be the easy and obvious answer, but I’ll have to plead ignorance on this one. I had more or less kept up with new fiction until 2004, when I began my novel history. That required so much reading/researching/writing that I had to declare a moratorium on new fiction for the next eight and a half-years. I braked for new books by old favorites (Ducornet, Markson, Powers, Sorrentino, Vollmann, Wallace) and for book review assignments—among which I’d urge lovers of maximalist prose to seek out Tom Carson’s Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (2011)—but I missed out on a lot and, after completing the second volume, never got back into reading much new fiction, or enough of it to make any generalizations.
GS: Don DeLillo essentially said in an interview from the 80s that the novel has always existed on the fringe of culture. He has also said something to the effect that the novel as an artform still has a few more centuries left in it, even though it won’t last forever. What do you think of these two sentiments?
SM: The novel was certainly on the fringe until the 18th century, when they became domesticated and more popular, but the literary novel (which is probably what he meant) continues to be on the fringe. The best are subversive and critical of society, heckling it from the back. I assume the literary novel will survive as long as civilization does—storytelling is in our DNA—but also that it will become a specialized taste, like opera (if it isn’t already). The future of literature looks pretty dim to me, which is why I am so glad I came of literary age in the 1970s. “There were giants in the earth in those days” (to quote the King James Bible), and I’m grateful that I read and even met some of them. Their like will not be seen again.
Steven Moore is the author of a two-volume survey of world literature titled The Novel: An Alternative History. He has also written extensively on modern literature, and for years was managing editor of Dalkey Archive Press/Review of Contemporary Fiction. His new book, Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, is forthcoming from Zerogram Press. You can find his website here.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.