Alexander Theroux is the author of stories, poetry, essays, fables, critical studies and such novels as Three Wogs, Darconville's Cat, An Adultery and his latest, Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual, which came as Theroux's first novel in two decades. Rain Taxi calls the book “a massive, 878-page compendium of vituperation against contemporary society, jabs at pop culture, exposés of office politics, and exploration of life and love in modern times,” an encyclopedic novel that's “wandering, erudite, funny, opinionated, didactic, repetitive.” Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
About the new book: you can't really understand it unless you get to know the characters, and you get to know them very well through the course of the book. The protagonist, Eugene Eyestones — tell us a little bit about him.
I've always been interested in a person that was both idealistic and something of a failure. Vladimir Nabokov once pointed out that every character is a little ramification of the author, so I've distributed some of my hostilities and fascinations and occasional quirks to him. I wanted to have him as a kind of raisonneur and a satirical point of departure for the multifarious views on life that are presented in the book. He's the thread through the book, which is not to say that he's normal or well-balanced.
You say you give him a few qualities, a few opinions of your own. Which ones are the most prominent in him that you took for yourself?
It's really hard to say, because, as Goethe once said, all writing is confession. In away, I've distributed myself throughout the book in various characters. John Keats once pointed out that Shakespeare maybe had a very empty personality, he might have been a very bland person, because he gave away his personality, the various voices that he had, to different people as various as Prospero, Lady Macbeth, you name it. I can't really say there's a one-to-one correspondence to much in Eyestones. His rooms, in many ways, echo mine: I have a lot of books, I have a portrait of Dostoevsky, blah blah blah.
But I think I can be found in other characters with equal force. There's an occasional shotgun in the corner, metaphorically speaking. My toothbrush over there, a particular vase in the room, but I can't deny that I'm in other places as well. I distributed myself throughout, and probably have as bland a personality as Keats argued Shakespeare had — not to make any major analogies here, by the way.
You talk about Eyestones' idealism. He has a huge number of ideals, strongly held. What ideals of his really define him for you?
He has an elevated view of women, although a lot of people would argue, vociferously, the opposite direction. His expectations are high. The genre of this novel is a satire. Through dramatic irony, I try to present him as a corrective to the wayward world, the quark-reversal world, the nutty world, the excessive world, the secular world. His point of view I like to think is balanced, although, as I say, a lot of people wouldn't agree. Laura Warholic attacks him three-quarters of the way through the book for a lot of lunatic excesses she finds in him, but a lot of those excesses and ideals — let's take one to make this clear.
He's kind of disbelieving in the possibility of democracy. Indeed, he sees it as a leveling force. I spent quite a bit of time on an essay on democracy in this book, which aims in the direction of trying to talk about couples. There's a certain kind of democracy required of people involved in coupledom. You have to settle on man and woman — in these days, man and man, whatever — he's kind of doubtful about the possibility of that being successful. That would be one example. There are many I could go into, but that would be one.
Would you call Eyestones the kind of guy who looks around and is constantly disappointed by the world, or — I guess in the book you show him having a few moments of not being disappointed, but they are few and far between. Primarily, he's disappointed, correct?
Yeah, he's very disappointed. After I wrote Darconville's Cat, I was going through a period of feeling loveless and was talking to a psychiatrist. I was teaching at Harvard at the time. I recapitulated a lot of my life. I had been in a monastery for a short time and been in a seminary, but I had gone hither and yon, traveled a bit. My psychiatrist was looking in a querulous way and said to me, which seemed like a periodic remark, “You're always trying to get out of the world.” That lead me to a minor disquisition on death, because, indeed, we're all having to get out of the world eventually. But he found that the case.
I would say yes, to answer your question: Eyestones is very much disappointed, as satirists are. People like Cervantes — again, I'm not making analogies with myself and Shakespeare or Cervantes — pyrotechnic writers, satirists in general, are very disappointed in the world. Spanking the world is part of their ambition. There's a great tradition of being disappointed and inflicting pain. There's a personal, partisan, no-punch-pulling involved.
My book hasn't been well-received; it's been basically ignored. I think it's a very important novel, but it's been ignored by people. I even had a hard time getting editors' attention: it's too long, it's too pyrotechnic, it's too multisyllabic, it's too opinionated, it's endless, there are longueurs, there are digressions. But one of the criticisms is that it's pitiless, even cruel and unsparing. That's what people are not used to. They're used to Tom Wolfe's jokey and affectionate lashings-out, kind of cartoon explosions. You have to look at Hunter Thompson's attacks to see real cruelty.
I don't know anybody that's doing the kind of — this book is not being written by anybody, this kind of prose, this kind of writing, because it's too savage, too unflinching. People just don't want this. “Why do you have such attitudes?” people tell me. “You're so extreme! You're so opinionated! This is so savage!” But satire, my point is, is savage. I'm thinking of a remark that Nathanael West made in The Day of the Locust, when he said, “Nothing is sadder than the truly monstrous.”
I find the world monstrous. Just in the news, that Israel won't let eight Palestinian Fulbrights — and the way the United States has cravenly rolled over and let Israel dictate whether these eight scholars, high-minded people, can't even get out of that horrible place in Gaza to come to the United States to be Fulbrights — that's the kind of thing I'm attacking. That's the kind of pain I'm inflicting. That's the kind of no-punch-pulling, unsparing, pitiless, even cruel attitude that I try to launch in the book. We're living in a really savage time.
You mention how people would criticize the book about the degree of savagery in it. It made me think of the large cast of characters and how many of the secondary characters, perhaps all of them, launch into very long tirades against whatever —
There's a lot of ethnic attacks. I decided to pull no punches. I'm not going to go on record in personalizing any of these things, but I had great delight in holding the mirror up to a lot of attitudes held today by many people. There is a kind of savage cast of characters, in short.
I couldn't get the attention of a lot of editors for this book; I can't even find an agent. I notice some of my books on the internet, people remark that I'm grumpy or unapproachable. It's amazing to me that this seed has got into the ground, because I'm not grumpy at all. I've pulled certain triggers in this novel and other of my novels, but I could go into Yeats' fear of the anti-self: your writing is the opposite of what you are. I don't know if you know that theory, but it's always intrigued me.
I'll drop this subject in a minute, but his point was that John Keats suffered great unhappiness from Fanny Brawne, whom he loved and didn't love him back, but his poetry's very happy. Dante, according to Yeats' theory, was a very sensual person. Why? Because Yeats pointed out that his writing is spiritual, that the artist is always directing his attention to the mask rather than the face. I hope I'm being clear here.
It's interesting that the criticism would be toward you, but attributing the opinions of your characters. The opinions of your characters conflict. They would attribute those to you, and call you the savage one?
It's called negative capability, the idea of attributing to the author the attitudes of his characters. That's one of the reasons I had difficulty. Certain editors just sent it back. I'm convinced that most editors, of course, couldn't tell a good manuscript from a box of shingles. I seriously mean that. So many good books have been refused.
I've always been accused of being a loony and a savage, but I had real high hopes for the book because, in a way, it's a potpourri of a lot of my thought. I remember reading once, Steinbeck had great ambitions for East of Eden. He thought he could never do again, at the time that was published, the compilation of opinions that he distributed to his characters. I had that kind of feeling.
It's in the genre of the encyclopedic, learned novel, but it's seen as too long, too learned, too pyrotechnic, too encyclopedic. I just want to turn a corner here for a minute, because, in light of all that, I really wanted to write something that was funny. My belief is, this novel is comic — and it does have a lot of comic intentions — senses of humor don't translate very easily or well.
You mention that the novel has not been recognized as comic, as it is. Why do you think that is?
I don't think I'm seen as someone worthy of major attention. When I was at graduate school at the University of Virginia, Annie Dillard was a friend of mine. She went to Hollins College, and I would see her periodically. Her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was reviewed by Eudora Welty. I'm just getting into a grumpy point here, but it clarifies my answer. So Annie Dillard's book was reviewed by a very large-hearted, noble person, whom you know. Eudora Welty gave it a very hyperbolic review, and she won the Pulitzer Prize, Annie Dillard did.
But my book was given to a complete yahoo from the New York Times Book Review, the kind of sine qua non of reviews in the United States. If you don't get a good review in the Sunday New York Times, your book basically goes into the drink. Anthony Burgess picked my novel Darconville's Cat as one of the best hundred books written since World War I, but it was badly reviewed by a grudging halfwit who taught at Amherst, a professor. The book died in its cradle in 1982, and only later, when a large-hearted and rather insightful critic, Anthony Burgess, reviewed it.
A lot of writers will say, “Oh, this is just sour grapes and complaints,” but my novel Laura Warholic was reviewed by a dunce. A complete dunce, and a rivalrous novelist, I gather. It gave no attention to the book, to the 900 or so pages of the book, whereas someone in a Princeton review gave it their full attention. Not necessarily praise, but a full, large-hearted, open-hearted, humble attention. You can't write a book over the course of four years and have it read in a grumpy Saturday afternoon by some maleducated nitwit and have the book be understood.
When the book was given a short shrift in the Book Review, I knew a decade or more would go by. But I promise you, this is the most important novel published this year. One of the things I loathe about Rush Limbaugh is self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, but I'm trying to honestly tell you that if people get in to see the fine grain of this book and patiently read it from A to Z, they will come to agree with me. I'm not saying they'll like me or like everything they read in it, but there's a long-winded, self-promoting digression.
These critics, the one that didn't quite handled the book as you —
Or that ignored it.
The ones that didn't ignore it, the ones that did review it: of those, of the things they misunderstood about the book, what do you think was the most misunderstood element? What did they most not get about Laura Warholic?
Before I attempt to answer that question, I have to tell you that no first-rate critic has read it. John Updike, who promised that he'd review the book, just sat on his hands. There are some very disturbing themes in this novel. We live in a very scrimp time, when people are ill-disposed to really want to push the boat out for a book. I was hoping people like Joyce Carol Oates or Annie Proulx — whom I know and is a friend of mine — and John Updike might have actually given it a bit of help, just some kind of attention.
So I want to answer your question by first saying, nobody — and I don't want to use the word “important” here in a class or an elitist sense — but nobody of significance has reviewed the book. The nitwits that have reviewed the book have picked up some pathetic things. Let me just make one point: when I was teaching at Yale, the woman that was raped in Central Park by five or six savages really bothered me. I wrote an article where I said they were monkeys and didn't deserve the space they inhabited. I didn't use the word “monkeys” as a codeword for black or African-American people, but it was seen that way.
That was a horrible event, and a misguided remark of mine. I really have no problem at all in that department. But the reviewer in the Book Review brought this whole thing up that had nothing to do with anything in the novel at all. He put a racial tinge on the novel that it didn't have. It's so easy to read a satire and be offended. Did you know that Daniel Defoe once wrote an essay called “On the Unreasonableness of Christianity” in order to point out that it was reasonable? But he used a satirical mode. Daniel Defoe was put into the stocks in London and humiliated, completely misunderstood. I do have some black characters in the novel, but this maleducated herbert that reviewed the book managed to find these little quirks, little spins that he put on it, to be offended — organized himself to be offended.
You think he was looking for a reason to be offended?
I just think he was a grudging small potato that didn't want to read this book in the way it was written, with a rather large Tintoretto-esque canvas, and be willing to read it and find this or that worthy of attention. I'm not looking for praise, by the way, in any of this; I'm looking for attention and intelligence, an intelligent response. It doesn't have to be favorable. The format of satire is a very dicey genre.
Do you think the prime stumbling block for critics was the length of the book, or, as you said, the themes of the book?
I'm going to answer that question by saying this: human nature can be very dark. You can come to someone's house for dinner. Say a couple invites people to dinner and puts a large centerpiece on the table, the best silver, the best wines. It's very common for people to leave that kind of dinner and, rather than be delighted and full of praise for the effort that went into it, says, “Who do they think they are? All that gussied-up, that table, did you notice that centerpiece?”
I just think the book is long, large, opinionated, quarrelsome, angular. Dwarves and pusillanimous people can't take it. I'm going to make another pathetic analogy, but it's always depressed me, reading the Gospels, how Jesus of Nazareth was so poorly treated. Now, this is no analogy I'm making between me and Christ; I'm just trying to point out that it's so typical for Christ to come and preach — the first time he came into the synagogue, he was asked to read a scroll of Isaiah, and he read it. He was criticized for pontificating about it. He was criticized because his father was a carpenter, he was criticized because he was from Nazareth, he was criticized for being an upstart. Three years later, he was crucified.
We don't appreciate bounty, I guess is my conclusion. I realize, by the way, in this conversation I've compared myself to Shakespeare, Christ, Cervantes…
For the benefit of the audience who have not read Laura Warholic yet, we should get a little more into the characters and what happens between them. We've discussed Eyestones. The title character, Laura Warholic herself — quite possibly the least appealing woman I have ever read in any book. What is she? Who is she?
First of all, I was interested in presenting the foreground couple as not just another Romeo and Juliet or Seinfeld and whatever that woman is. I was interested in having a mismatched, odd couple. Eyestones is as bewildered with Laura as Laura is bewildered that she's with him. When I say “with him,” they don't fit in any definable way. He exploits her to some degree and regrets it all along, using a lot of her quirks and attitudes in the column he writes. She sees him as a kind of safeguard or sanctuary for the rather unhappy and ass-backwards life she's living.
It happens so often in life that these people are together in a kind of odd, non-Kodak-moment world, where they lean against each other like straw people, are occasionally happy with each other, are competitive with each other. That mismatch, to me, allowed for a lot of the sparks in the writing. I didn't want to have another standard Hollywood or television couple that's played by Meg Ryan and — who's that hydrocephalic actor? Tom Hanks. It's a very odd couple, in short.
What kind of relationship would you say Eyestones and Laura even have? It's not what you would call a romantic relationship, in any sense.
It's true. It's not even a Relationship with a capital R. It's really a kind of… union. But then you could say, is it a union? I address it in that essay on democracy. Are they a couple? Is a couple a pair? Are they a pair? Are they matched? These nouns don't work: pair, couple — I hope you can understand my working-class Boston accent, by the way —
union, relationship, they're all insufficient to talk about the way these people fall into step, which they don't really even do. Do you remember Horton the elephant, sitting on the egg? It has to do with that.
Laura, she's so very unappealing, so unattractive, rail-thin, possibly the flakiest person I've ever heard of in life or in fiction, commits to nothing, really is nothing, leads a very desultory lifestyle. What could Eyestones possibly want from someone like this?
In a negative way, he has a kind of messianic compulsion to take care of her. It's pity, which is a vice, according to Graham Greene in the novel Brighton Rock. I don't know if you know that novel. He has a kind of horrible messianism in the way that the protagonist in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Ashburnham, has, this kind of misguided messianism. But at the same time he cares for her and tries to help her out of the messes and situations she's in. The novel takes place between a September and a New Year's Eve, but it flashes back a couple of years, so it's not like a lifetime relationship. It's kind of tangential, but there's an argument that there are hundreds and thousands of this kind of couple in the world.
There's a lot more than anybody reading the book would think?
You see people at the checkout counter over at a Stop & Shop or an A&P or a Piggly Wiggly store, there's Mike and there's Harriet. “Harriet, go get the beans!” “Would you hold this cart for a minute?” It's so easy to think that these couples are three-dimensional and organized and he's next to her, but I have trouble with that in fiction. If you look closely at that couple — it is a novel of cognition, and the great novels are all cognitive, in a way — you're always wondering why Ishmael is friendly with Queequeg. What is the commitment of these people to Ahab?
When I was teaching that novel, I used to always explain that when he's listening to Father Mapple's sermon, looking a paintings of the whale at the beginning of that novel, it's a point of departure for the cognitive requirement that the reader has to try to figure out, “What's the meaning of this?” I mention in the novel that that's the purpose of living. What is the meaning of life? We're going to each hang up this phone and go about our day, but the non-seeker, the person that's not looking for meaning — I'm asking a person to do that in life as I'm asking myself, in the same way that I'm asking the person that wrote the review.
You have an obligation as a reviewer and as a liver of life to seek meaning, to find the meaning, to turn over stones. I was at church yesterday: people were walking out after the post-communion, talking at the back of the service, a perfunctory five-minute sermon. I'm sounding really epistemological, but people don't want meaning! They don't want to find the significance of things.
Is that observation that people don't want to find meaning part of the foundation of this book when you began to write it? That was a theme you knew you wanted to hit?
Each page is a mountain. I worked very hard to make almost every page worthy to be read. I have great respect for readers, but they very rarely live up to my dream counterpart. I think people just want to go the beach with a beach read. You look at the bestseller list, you look at trashy novelists like John Grisham — people want a good detective novel. So many writers are rewarded for absolute trash. I don't even think the genre itself is a very high watermark at this point.
You mean literature entirely?
Yeah. Using my novel as a benchmark, I think people just don't want anything complicated. Flem Snopes in the Snopes trilogy, there's one point where someone's trying to sell him a horse. He doesn't buy the horse, the wily Flem Snopes. When he's walking away, someone asks him why he didn't buy the horse, and Flem Snopes said, “I didn't believe what the person was saying. It wasn't complicated enough.” My books are too complicated. This particular novel is too complicated.
Is this the most complicated novel you've ever done?
It's my longest and most ambitious effort.
Has it been less well-received than all of your others?
It hasn't been received at all. I think it sold 6,000 books. It wasn't reviewed. I haven't seen one intelligent review, one worthy review, or one review that really addresses it. People listening to this are just going to think I'm so crabby and, in such a self-inflated way, saying, “Oh, woe is me,” but we're talking about serious books. When I review a book, I consider it almost a mission, not a trade, to review it with all my strongest intelligence and my largest heart. I reviewed Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon's book. I spent a long time trying to come to terms with that book as a reviewer.
And what publication was that for?
The Wall Street Journal. I think it was the first review of that book, by the way.
I thought parts of it were very inaccessible. I was just in Estonia the last three or four months, and re-read Gravity's Rainbow. I didn't fully announce it in my review of Against the Day, but a lot of Thomas Pynchon is very inaccessible, math and scientific areas that I guess you could really apply — but he's relentless.
I tried to make this book very readable, with short chapters. Dostoevsky once advised someone to write short chapters, and I always was very appreciative in his novels that the chapters were short. A book is an artifact; you have to be able to pick it up and put it down. Thomas Pynchon doesn't allow you to get certain footholds in his books. I think it's a great fault, and I think it's a kind of vanity on his part. It may be even a closet refusal; he's hiding in experiment, in some ways. Why obfuscate?
I claim that every single sentence in Laura Warholic is understandable, but there are places that are so obfuscated in Against the Day and Gravity's Rainbow, so outré that you can't put your arms around it. That's his failure as a writer. I once, in a review, criticized John Ashbery for writing obfuscatory lines in poems that made no sense whatsoever. He took great umbrage and wrote me a nasty letter, but you know, I think it's a great fault in a writer.
Great writers can be understood. Henry James' The Sacred Fount is a novel I find complicated, unnecessarily. There are certain writers that just are offensive because they can't be read clearly. I'm proud of the fact that my books can all be read. You might have to look up a word or go back a few pages to check something out, but that was one of the difficulties I've always had in Pynchon's novels. He's intentionally obfuscating.
In discussions about a certain style of writing, I'll often hear Thomas Pynchon and you clumped into the same group of what they call “maximalist” writers.
I've never seen my name linked with him at all.
I've seen it a couple times in the last few days. It's not like I'm constantly seeing it, but I hear it put under the umbrella of maximalism. Is that a term you've heard attached to yourself a whole lot?
I've heard that attached to me. Thomas Pynchon's wife was once my agent, and never really helped me much. I don't know if she saw me as a rival, but I love Pynchon. I think he has a great sense of humor, and he's so brilliant. That's the tragedy, with a small t, in his books: I have a doctorate in literature, and I'm often left completely outside that cathedral, when I'd like to be a worshiper inside. I understand maybe 82 percent of his books. That other percentage, it's sad that there's no foothold for me there. Maybe there are other people that don't have that complaint, but that's my complaint. I do have a pyrotechnic or maximalist prose style.
If you only understand 82 percent of Pynchon's books, how much do you think the average Pynchon reader — and there are quite a few of them — gets from his books?
There's a real cult to him. You can go to his books with goodwill. We have short life, so you can't spend your life — I think I understand a great, great, great percentage, maybe 97 percent, of Ulysses, because it's a very lucid novel, a very funny novel, very rewarding. I think the average person bails on Pynchon almost all the time. I know there's a big web site and a great cult for him, but I think he has a lot of bailers out there.
I wanted to get back to the subject of Eugene and Laura. Eugene is the Sexual Intellectual of the title; he has the sex column for the magazine Quink. Does Laura serve him as a kind of specimen for that?
He sees her really as a kind of test for things that he's thinking. Now let me just say this: I think the sexual — and I'm not just talking about pornography at all — the ways peoples' sex lives are, their preoccupations, what they like, the way their lives are led, is a very interesting subject and a key to the door of the complexity of man. I've always had an amazing interest — not a priapic interest at all — in some of the excesses and lunacies and remarkable instances that are worthy of writing down about the sexual behavior and attitudes of people.
That was one of my ambitions in writing the book. It's an interesting subject to me; it's one of the side rooms of love. You find this in all great novels: in Proust, in Dickens' books to a degree. I was fascinated with that thematic thread in the book. There is a kind of tour de force involved in having Eyestones pivot from observations he makes of Laura, but indeed of many of the other characters in the book, along with his own a priori opinions, before he takes this job, to make this a kind of leitmotif of the novel.
There is one chapter called “What in Love or Sex Isn't Odd?”, which lists a whole bunch — and I mean a whole bunch — of facts relating to sex throughout the history of man that are, in fact, odd. Throughout the entire book, there are many odd facts dropped, sometimes in list form. Were these facts that you knew the knew the topic of the book and then researched, or were they things you happened to know, that aligned with your interests?
I'm a very wide reader, so there are things I remembered, things I observed, things I read, things I heard. But let me ask you a question: did you enjoy that chapter?
In fact, I did enjoy that chapter. One of my favorites.
Because you can't not enjoy that chapter! One critic pointed out that it was like eating potato chips: you just have to keep going. It's nothing more than enunciations of real facts about some of the sexual proclivities and oddities and excesses of people. It can't be read with anything but delight, no matter what your attitude may be about me and my writing. I knew that chapter would be interesting to anybody, because if that's not interesting, you're dead! You're dead if you don't find that interesting. There's almost nothing salacious in it, and there's very little salacious in this novel.
I take no pride in that nudge-nudge stuff. I was a lifeguard in the early sixties and was reading Lolita. A cop came over, because he'd heard of the novel. There's no four-letter words in it; there's very little that's salacious in the book. There's a patina of salacity in the book. The cop took the book aside and predictable came back in about 20 minutes and said, “It sucks!” He threw the book down, because he was looking for the blue pages that are just not there. I'm sure you agree that there's nothing salacious in that chapter and very little or nothing salacious in the book.
I wanted to ask about how the reactions differ between the chapter we just mentioned and a chapter that comes earlier in the book, which is an essay from Eugene Eyestones that was submitted to Quink and that his editor, Warholic, rejected. They cover similar ground: sex-related insights —
You're talking about a chapter called “The Controversial Essay”. This is one of the bookends of the novel, because I find the subject fascinating. I'm just going to recapitulate the chapter quickly: it's kind of one of my “beliefs,” and I put “beliefs” in quotation marks, that a lot of women have difficult in the creative department. Not that they're not better-skilled at it, at times, than men, but a woman has to rise above her biology, in a way, to sculpt. A woman, in housing a child — and there are some real subtleties in this argument you have to pay attention to — her DNA is arranged to support that baby. She has a great creativity that defines her that men don't have.
It's my theory — again, I could argue the opposite if I felt like it, I'm going to launch this pro and I could launch the con if you want — that men, to a degree, are sterile. We don't feel the asperity of having a child as fathers. So we write novels, we sculpt, as attempts to be creative, whereas a woman has to rise above her biology to that. She does it, often, better than men. I'll never be as great a novelist as George Eliot, say. A woman has to get into a certain frame of mind to create, and in that essay I tried to support that argument. It's a very controversial, seemingly fascist argument. There's no misogyny involved at all.
I once gave a lecture at Radcliffe when I was teaching at Harvard in the seventies. I was toying with thus subject in a very amicable way, and of course this was an age — '74, '74 — when, you know, the feminist movement was in high gear. I didn't even get five sentences out of my mouth when a student said, “I'd like to stick a bread knife into you.” It's a very long and very complicated chapter, and a person has to read this from A to Z to see what I'm getting at.
I tried to give, in a capsulized, way, what the book is about. It touches on some of the things, as you point out accurately, are later touched on in various parts of the novel. It's called “The Controversial Essay” because most people are prone to misunderstand it, but in fact it glorifies the nature of women, although a lot of people won't agree with that. This is one of the things about this novel: if you looked at it with a half a brain or in a couple of hours, you're not going to be doing justice to the pages.
I want to ask a bit more about Laura herself. I've mentioned — twice, I think — how unappealing she is. Why did you want to make her so repulsive?
I wanted to make her not fully repulsive as much as an angled character. She's a bookend to the character Rapunzel in the novel, who's hyperbolically presented as almost perfect. Remember her?
I couldn't forget.
She's kind of the alternate Laura, but in that magnetic field between the two people, I've tried to make hay. There are places where Laura Warholic is actually commendably ironic, praiseworthily energetic, if not pretty. People say that the sign of a great female character is energy. Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, even Tom Sawyer's girlfriend — is it Becky Thatcher? — Natalya Rostova in War and Peace — the sign of a great character is not necessarily good looks but energy. That's one thing Laura has in the book. She's indolent as far as having a job, but I think she can be, if not praised, then at least appreciated in the dimension of energy.
It's directed toward surviving. That seems to be her main ambition.
Just biological persistence?
Yes, although it doesn't lead to a happy ending, we both know.
The cast of characters behind Eugene and Laura, the large number of them: there's members of the office of Quink and many more besides. Most of them you describe with a certain amount — I guess a lot — of grotesquerie. Many of them are grotesque, and they're bulging, and they have odd hair and strange styles of dress. I don't know if you'd even call it ugly, at a certain point. Kind of like a kaleidoscope of weirdness. Was that a conscious choice, to make everybody so eccentric?
It's kind of a satirical vehicle. One may think of people like Flannery O'Connor. She once said that the world is blind, so you have to draw large figures; the world is deaf, so you have to shout loud. That famous essay of hers, I think it's in a book called The Habit of Being. I have a character that's anti-Semitic, I have a person that attacks god, I have a gay person, I have a person that stutters, I have a person that's a miser. There was a Latin writer named Theophrastus and a French writer named La Bruyère. I'm well aware that types that intrigue me, defined, even if you may think in a lame way, to make some satirical points about people. It is a kind of rogue's gallery, a very crippled aggregate of characters. Some are winning, but some are not. There's always a comic thrust behind it.
One of the other things critics have said about the book is that there's no plot. I disagree with that, and I would imagine you disagree, but how do you respond th that charge?
I've been accused of that before. For instance, in Darconville's Cat, where there's a very serious plot. Over the course of 800 or 900 pages — I read one critic that said I just wrote a bunch of essays and basically have no talent as a fiction writer, that this is just a compilation of essays. It's a ludicrous point, because there's an actual story from the beginning to the end of this book. But your question's well taken, and I will drop the story in order to make a chapter I felt I need to put in there.
You can look at Moby-Dick, for example, and say the longueurs just destroy the novel, but I never felt that for a minute, because of the importance of what the whale is: his size and dimensions have to be pointed out. The cetological chapters are totally important in that novel. Melville is supporting the story with those seeming digressions. I'm actually trying to support my novel, the props of this novel, with occasional essays. I wrote a novel called An Adultery once with a chapter on adultery. There are digressions on painting in that novel. But only a fool will read the book and say that, because the story is not directly kinetic from A to Z without any stops over — the encyclopedic novel is always stopping.
Henry Fielding did it constantly in Tom Jones. Melville did it in Moby-Dick. Joyce does it in Ulysses, but the story is always brought forward. I defend this novel: the story is always being brought forward from the beginning to the end. It just, dunces don't want to stop and watch those digressions, and that's why dunces always complain about the cetological chapters in Moby-Dick. “They're just boring!” they say. “I want to find out if Ahab's gonna die!” they say. “Whatever happened to Fedallah? Get to the goddamn point, Melville!” You know?
Is this problem just the very nature of the encyclopedic novel, that it faces stumbling blocks to a wide audience because it has these digressions?
Yeah, because people are just not learned. That's why bad music is played on the radio. I mentioned Rush Limbaugh before; that's why he's popular! Because he's a moron! The other day — I listen to him periodicially — he was trying to boast that he knows classical music. He never went to college. I'm not making an elitist point here, but he's a stupid man. Widely listened-to people are often stupid. He's an absolute dunce. He makes about five grammatical mistakes every half-hour. He's a limited intelligence.
That's why he's popular, because people don't want to think! They don't want to have their feet put to the fire. They don't want to look up a word! They don't want to listen to that allusion! That's why I'm basically very sympathetic to Thomas Pynchon, because I deeply appreciate the work he's done in his books. Rush Limbaugh's almost the archetype of the fool. He thinks he's popular because he's intelligent and reasonable. He's popular because he's a dunce!
He thinks he's popular for the same reasons Thomas Pynchon has his cult following?
I can't explain the cult following. I can't believe that so many people can read him on a high level. I'm bewildered a bit by the so-called cult. I know that his name's always mentioned, but sometimes people, in a relay race, take — what is that thing that's passed off?
They'll take the baton and almost programmatically mention Pynchon in relation to the learned writer or the encyclopedic novelist, but I'm dubious about how wide his readership is.
I've been thinking a lot, in recent days, about any creative effort, especially writing, being — the usual saying is, “a war against cliché.” How much of a war against cliché are you engaging in when you write?
A total war against cliché. I used to teach a fiction course in various universities and always say, “Great writing is an assault against cliché.” That's the lameness of so many bad writers. I don't want to make enemies in listing bad writers, but so many bad writers that are popular, they just don't work at avoiding the clichés. It's so easy to fall into those clichés. It's so painful to read them. I once had to review an Ann Rice novel called Taltos for the Chicago Tribune. I was just throwing the book across the room. Just stick figures — she's awful. And yet she's hugely popular.
Why do readers let that off the hook, do you think?
People just are not that intelligent. It's going to be one of my complaints when I go before the great throne: “Why didn't god make more intelligent people?” I'm asking that a human being be more than intelligent. A person has to be loving and charitable and kind and godly and decent. But a person should be intelligent. The purpose if living is to find the meaning of it! You have to find the meaning of living! And you have to drag your body through life and your mind through life and your spirit through life, but you have to try to fill your mind and fill your soul and fill your spirit.
But people are lame; they don't want to be taxed. When people call up Rush Limbaugh and say, “It's an honor to speak to you,” I want to shoot myself. It's such an offense! An offense against the first commandment. I don't think people really want to examine their hearts or their minds or their spirits. That's my answer. They don't want to read complicated books, they don't want to listen to Mozart, they don't want to study hard, they don't want to be patient and listen to why somebody's suffering. They don't want to let Fulbright scholars come to the United States.
Is Laura Warholic one of your biggest blows against that?
It is. It's a total attack upon mediocrity, that novel.
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