15 March 2011

Alexander Theroux: Laura Warholic: or, the Sexual Intellectual (2006)

Laura Warholic: or, the Sexual Intellectual is a big novel in more ways than one. It is almost 900 pages long, weighs in at almost two kilos, and is the first prose novel published by Fantagraphics Books: Theroux chose them as they made no editorial demands on his manuscript. He expects no one to read his book until its discovery in about 2047.

Theroux - whose work includes (at least 20 years before this) the novels Three Wogs, Darconville's Cat, and An Adultery - eschews plot for a character-driven narrative, and in Laura Warholic his characters are almost all grotesque, repulsive, three-quarters-mad and obsessive,  but oddly entrancing at the same time. Laura Warholic is an ugly, 36-year-old stick-like creature with a permanent unpleasant smell who is addicted to sex and rock culture - a chapter is titled 'Exile in Guyville' after Liz Phair's influential 1993 album - and the other main character is Eugene Eyestones, an older down-at-heel journalist fascinated by Laura, and who writes a brilliant but list-obsessed and sometimes overlong, sometimes highly politically incorrect column called 'The Sexual Intellectual' for Quink magazine.

Quink is edited by the concupiscent (but probably impotent) monster Minot Warholic, Laura's estranged husband who calls her a whore and is obsessed about the money he says she owes him. The female 'sex-weasels' Muscrat and Squishy live with him and accompany him most of the time. Various unsavory characters linked to the magazine hang out in such places as Welfare's, a bar in the Boston area in Massachusetts, where the book is set and the magazine based.

Eugene and Laura live in dumps in Cambridge, Laura living rent free in return for regular sexual services to the insane landlord Micepockets, who - a menacing priapic cripple - is another monster. During a two-month road tour of the States with Laura, Eugene (who has an annoying habit of 'correcting' her grammar) finds out how truly incompatible they are, and yet both remain together, locked in a fascinated love-hate bond. To kiss her repels him because of her permanent halitosis, and he won't have sex with her as she refuses to take an Aids test, so she just masturbates herself to sleep.

There are many lengthy digressions, often rants, which are often in the form of lists, such as the 'Sex Questions' chapter that is a list of miscellaneous sexual oddities that Eugene collects in a notebook, and which resemble the lists compiled in David Markson's Reader's Block mentioned somewhere below.

This is an extreme example of Theroux's crazy polysyllabic style, and is the second sentence of the chapter 'The Sewing Circle', referring to a local bar in the novel:

'It was packed sardine-tight with amazons, cowboy girls, berdaches, women in lumber-jackets, dime bull-dykes, inertinites, female mastodons, kickboxing bansheettes, tribadists, succobovaients, gynoids, sex sufists, dandle queers, sexual variety artists, female infonauts, exchromonians, tinjinkers, bold she-males, old boy actresses, lumber-mothers, algogenesolagniasts, gregomulcts, mammathigmomaniacs, asylum-seekers, nerdoïdes, two-fisted falsettists, ambiguas, half-and-half figures, neurasthenic seek-sorrows and various other big-boned women anesthetical to the lacquers of glamour and lineaments of grace.'

Laura Warholic is a brilliant, hugely digressive, tragic novel which is a biting satire on contemporary American society, and keeps making me think of a 21st century Lionel Britton.

(The photo on the dust jacket cover is of Evelyn Nesbit, and information about her is here. A short piece on YouTube puts together a number of photos of her, with Scott Joplin as background music, here.


Anonymous said...

A lot of these categories are abstruse.
Isn't it the case that Lionel Britton had at least one eye on the polemic?
We know he would write page after page with no regard to the patience of his reader, but if he had felt the possibility of losing his audience by repetitious recitation of those outlandish categories, would he have gone on?
My copy of Hunger and Love had uncut pages, dozens of them: it had clearly not been read. He had lost his reader at some early stage, but Lionel did not anticipate this, as he thought his work so important.
So he already had a problem connecting with the supposed readership, but he didn't go this far, and if he were writing today I suggest he would have avoided the pitfall.
There is a clear distinction between chucking into your discussion a whole bunch of terms which the vast majority of your readers don't understand, and talking at near-intolerable lengths in ways that they otherwise might.
I submit as his humble great-nephew that Lionel made the latter mistake rather than the former.
Was Lionel not first and foremost a polemicist? Did he not have a keen sense, however misdirected, that he was helping to re-shape the Human Race?
What would Lionel do with Gaddafi? I suspect he would have no answer, because he thought a big ball of Brain in the Sahara was the way to go; but despite never having met him and yet having a vicarious affection, I can't help thinking his polemic ended in bollocks.
Robert Hughes

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Maybe I'll get it right this time:

Robert, my example wasn't intended as a comparison with your uncle Lionel's writing, but simply as an example of Theroux's polysyllables.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of polemical writing in Laura Warholic, the rants are very similar to Lionel Britton's, and I'm sure many people would find this equally unreadable. But surely many people also find Ulysses unreadable, although it's probably the greatest novel ever written?

Certainly Hunger and Love and Laura Warholic aren't among the greatest novels ever written, but they nonetheless have a certain brilliance.

It's impossible to speculate about what a writer would or wouldn't have done under different circumstances, but Lionel Britton -whose novel Bertrand Russell took the trouble to write a five-page Introduction to - was aware that many readers had problems understanding his novel.

So he wrote a second one, the more popularly-oriented 'Murder's Last Word', but it didn't even get published. Why? One reason is that it wasn't Lionel Britton writing anymore, but a guy who'd shrunk his brain for mass consumption, and in the end was just writing pulp.

In spite of what I said above, I suggest that Lionel Britton would share a few of Alexander Theroux's views of modern 'democracy', where the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Snatch51 said...

That must be right Doc.

Lionel did get way ahead of his readers, but did he know he did?

The Theroux material seems an example of where the writer has an intriguing list of categories, (in this case dealing with the clientele of what seems to be a lesbian venue), and has decided to parade it for its own sake.

Perhaps Lionel's cosmological speculations could sometimes fall into the same category, but Hunger and Love seems like a polemic, and did Lionel not keep one eye on his audience, whether or not he misjudged them?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Oh yes, Robert, Lionel knew he was ahead of his readers, and even wrote a piece called 'Hunger and Love for Nitwits' (God, that word now sounds so quaint!).

Maybe that lesbian quotation was a bit of a pink herring, but Lionel was pretty fond of displaying his knowledge gratuitously too.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Of course, there's also the fact that Theroux doesn't like being edited either.

I suspect that Theroux earns little from his writings, and his day jobs have been at universities. Of course, Lionel Britton too, if he'd been born later, would have been able to earn a PhD and hold his head above water by teaching. Or should that be (humanist) preaching? No, come to think of it he'd probably have called everyone an idiot and walked out.

R. Firbank said...

Theroux doesn't have a day job. He was fired from Yale years ago for referring to a group of African-Americans as "monkeys" in a letter to the editor of a Boston newspaper - the incident is described in the beginning pages of LW. He hasn't been able to teach since. He writes book reviews.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I was aware of the unfortunate 'monkey' comment, and I think that's why I said 'have been' rather than 'are', although I was probably compromising by covering myself by not saying 'were', as I wasn't too sure of his academic status. Persona non grata in the world of academe, then? Rapists of course are far worse than monkeys, but under the circumstances (of which I'm not fully acquainted) it doesn't look good and does come over as racist, I agree.