My Back Pages and Alexander Theroux by Steven Moore

About Steven Moore: 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 newest book is Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes (Zerogram Press). You can find his website here.

Steven Moore, as his surname would suggest, has read more books than you. He has also done more for literature than most people. He was a champion of Gaddis when that writer had precious few champions, becoming something of a world authority on his work; he was the managing editor of Dalkey Archive during its glory days as well as the editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction; he was an early champion of David Foster Wallace and but so was asked by DFW himself to read over the manuscript of Infinite Jest with an editor’s eye (he even played tennis with Wallace!); he reformulated the concept of the novel, writing an alternative and impressively comprehensive history of that great artform across two thick volumes, and much more.

Moore is not in the habit of writing hatchet jobs, which is often the job of the hack, after all (there are some delightful and deserving burns of the kind of lazy writing Moore abhors, though. See the Richard Ford review on page 172). Rather, Moore is about amore, more and more amore. The passion in many of his reviews makes them almost Borgesian, in the sense that a reader can enjoy a book that isn’t being read but read about, like Pierre Menard’s Quixote. Don’t get me wrong, though, because Moore isn’t writing fiction, thus he reviews with clarity in mind, allergic as he is to the willful and obtuse obscurantism of modern academic writing. No, his reviews are straightforward yet infectious in their celebration of language and storytelling.

What kind of language and storytelling, you ask? Put simply, “full-bodied maximalist fiction over thin-blooded minimalism.” (370) Like any serious reader, Moore’s brain is free of “Hemingway’s Disease: the delusion that short, see-Spot-run sentences constitute fine writing, that adjectives and adverbs are crutches only weak writers use, that metaphors are for sissies, and that it’s useful to repeat character’s full names in every sentence.” (298) I suspect that Moore would be a proponent, as I am, of Paul West’s amazing essay titled “In Defense of Purple Prose” (Indeed, Moore favorably reviews a handful of West’s books.):

“Of course, purple is not only highly colored prose. It is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing – showing off – the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy.”

Moore, I’m sure, micro-mourns (if he isn’t already inured to such stupidity), when a would-be reader complains of ‘difficulty’ at the first instance of an allusion or wordplay or a change in perspective, etc. Readers like the brain-fried Jonathan Franzen who went out of his way to write the embarrassing “Mr. Difficult” essay that whines about his inability to process great works of literature, particularly William Gaddis: ‘“I’d wanted to grab Gaddis by the lapels and shout, “Hello! I’m the reader you want! I love smart fiction, and I’m looking for a good Systems novel. If you can’t even show me a good time, who else do you think is going to read you?”’ Try answering that flame-retardant rhetoric. Although mentally conflicted, Franzen is ultimately the kind of writer who is, as Paul West put it about mainstream writers in general, “trying to invent the nineteenth-century novel in the age of quasars” (365)—provincialism of the intellect.

As Moore explains and as Franzen’s faux pas reinforces, “the main charge is ‘difficulty,’ yet only in literature does this seem to be a sin. One rarely sees a music critic complain that Philip Glass expects too much of his listeners, or reads that Merce Cunningham expects too much from his audience. In diving competitions and magic acts the degree of difficulty is admired. But let a writer execute a difficult task with breathtaking technique, and mostly what’s heard is heckling—whining and moaning about how much effort is involved in watching the artist work. What should be a privilege is treated like an affront.” (177)

So it should be obvious that if you don’t like this type of literature, then you won’t enjoy My Back Pages, except perhaps as a list of books to avoid (surely at the risk of shrinking your soul). As for me, in this sense, Moore is a kindred spirit.

There’s plenty of authors I’m familiar with after much digging and hunting and yet plenty I’m not. After reading Moore’s tome (the paperback nearly splitting in half at the midpoint, empathetically cracking the spiritual spine of this careful bibliophile) I’ve added about 40 books to my to-read list, including fiction by Elizabeth Smart, Bardford Marrow, Lee A. Siegel, Mary Butts, Mina Loy, etc. And there were plenty of other works and writers already on my radar but are now blipping all the brighter, such as Richard Powers, Stanley Elkin, Mo Yan, et al. If you have a limited book-buying budget, then you’ll need to self-flagellate your back as you read My Back Pages, as I did, only buying two books…so far: Show Girl by invisible roaring 20s author J.P. McEvoy and The Nambuli Papers, a novel/DVD/gameboard hybrid work by the equally invisible Greg Boyd.

This thick volume is the closest we will get to a third volume of Moore’s alternative history of the novel as most if not all of the work reviewed here is from the 20th century. And as thick as the book is, there are still hordes of deserving writers who are left out, such as Evan Dara, Abel Posse, Wendy Walker, Luisa Valenzuela, Johnny Stanton, Patricia Eakins, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, et al ad infinitum, as well as many big names like Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov. This however is a fault that belongs to the ‘literary community’ at large and not Steve, who is only one man doing all he can to sustain literature upon his back like Atlas. There is a bonus personal essay titled “Nympholepsy” (which, in a way, echoes Moore’s favorite novel, Darconville’s Cat, as Michael Silverblatt pointed out) that will not only break your heart but will make you want to hug Moore and tell him that there’s someone out there for everyone, you just have to keep looking. Overall, My Back Pages is a valuable and essential book for any serious reader of 20th-century fiction. Buy a copy yesterday.

***

A few of the essays/reviews in Steven Moore’s new work, Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, appear in My Back Pages, making an already slim book slimmer, but Moore is upfront about this in the preface: “As the subtitle might suggest, this isn’t so much a book as a compilation of things I’ve written on Alexander Theroux over the years, with early ones retained in their original form rather than reworked into a harmonious whole with much later ones in order to record my changing opinions on his work. […] It attempts to be both a personal and impersonal evaluation of Theroux’s multifarious oeuvre, and if nothing else provide a treasure trove of Therouviana to aid others in making their own evaluation of this most singular writer.” (7) This compact compilation is indeed a treasure trove, and although it isn’t the wide-ranging book of academic writing that Theroux’s work deserves, it’s a great starting point and I hope a preliminary and necessary spark for the ignition of a conflagration of recognition (alas, knowing how lost the gatekeeping literary community is, this will probably not happen anytime soon, if ever. Any chance will come from you, dear reader, spreading the Therouvian gospel in a choir composed of the other Theroux wooed).

It would be no exaggeration to say that Alexander Theroux is one of the greatest writers of all time. All one has to do is read the masterpiece Darconville’s Cat (if you can afford a copy; it has been wrongly out of print for almost a quarter of a century [as long as it remains OP, I will happily send an illicit e-book to willing readers who cannot afford the outrageously-priced copies being hawked by greedy booksellers; you can contact me through my website]), but Theroux has written a lot more than that masterpiece, including the shaggier but still very much masterful Laura Warholic. In an email, Theroux told me that “I can promise you, my best work is sitting on my desk, unpublished!” I believe him. Moore’s book mentions Artists Who Kill and Other Essays, full-length books on the (non)colors black and white, Shop Around: An Examination of Plagiarism, the epic novel Herbert Head, and much more.

In Moore’s book, there’s everything from a great interview that was originally published in 1991 in RCF and information on the as-yet-unpublished Collected Stories to errata for Laura Warholic and an index to the Collected Poems, the latter and other bits being pretty much only useful to Theroux scholars.

When it comes to material written for this book, there are several intriguing essays. “The Original of Laura: The Making and Unmaking of Laura Warholic”, as you can tell from the subtitle, sees Moore in an oscillating attack mode, which as noted above, seems to be out of his comfort zone and makes for some uncomfortable reading at times. However, the context allows one to empathize with Moore to an extent, and there is plenty in the essay that illuminates the work and offers tantalizing behind-the-scenes facts and drama, as well as a photo of the real Laura Warholic who is as thin as she’s described in the book (and let’s leave it at that). There are other moments of criticism too, for this book is no hagiography. Fair or not, one of the deepest burns comes from Moore’s disappointment that Theroux is closer to Mailer in his eclectic output than, say, John Barth, whose allegiance was to fiction first and foremost, especially the novel. Considering Theroux’s prodigious books on curious facts, Moore writes:

“Adding all these unpublished books to Theroux’s published ones, these miscellanies constitute the largest percentage of his oeuvre, larger than his combined novels and short fiction, larger than his complete poetry, and larger than his uncollected literary essays and reviews. Despite Theroux’s high opinion of them, they are essentially books of trivia, which may be the most inconsequential genre there is. I can’t think of any other major writer who has spent so many years compiling so many books in a trifling genre like this—imagine Nabokov writing more books on chess and butterfly trivia than fiction—especially when Theroux could have been completing his ambitious novel-in-progress Herbert Head instead.” (176-177)

Once again, to an extent I can both empathize and agree with Moore because I too would love to have much more Therouvian fiction than is currently available, even at the expense of, say, Einstein’s Beets.

With “The Novelist as Critic”, Moore makes a great case for novelists being better critics than critics period, then gives us an hors d’oeuvre overview of Theroux’s criticism over the decades, including his wonderful review of Pynchon’s Against the Day in The Washington Post.

In “The Brothers Theroux”, Moore creates a portrait of one of the most unique and unfortunately venomous relationships between sibling writers.

Overall, Alexander Theroux should definitely be useful to Theroux scholars (precious few they may be) and is a convenient and fascinating collection of criticism and factual information for fellow fans. As Theroux wrote in Darconville’s Cat, “The complexity of language […] lies not in its subject matter but in our knotted understanding.” (622) Moore’s offering unknots so that we may better understand and appreciate Theroux’s oeuvre.

References

Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books.” The New Yorker, 30 Sept. 2002, adilegian.com/FranzenGaddis.htm.

Moore, Steven. Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes. 1st ed., Los Angeles, Zerogram Press, 2020.

—. My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays. Expanded paperback edition, Los Angeles, Zerogram Press, 2018.

Paul West. “In Defense of Purple Prose.” The New York Times, 15 Dec. 1985, http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/15/books/in-defense-of-purple-prose.html.

Theroux, Alexander. Darconville’s Cat. 1st ed., Garden City, New York, Doubleday Books, 1981.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus 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 FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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