FICTION

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Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

LAURA WARHOLIC or, THE SEXUAL INTELLECTUAL

By Alexander Theroux

Fantagraphics. 878 pp. $29.95

Can a novel about love and the illusions of love be created out of almost 900 satire-laced pages devoted to obscene invective, hatred, pettiness, ignorance, pity, pride and hubris? This is the question raised by Alexander Theroux's first novel in 20 years, Laura Warholic or, The Sexual Intellectual. If the answer is "maybe," the blame lies less with Theroux's prodigious natural talent than with how he has chosen to structure his narrative and the repetitive nature of his characterizations.

Eugene Eyestones writes a sex column for Quink, a Boston magazine edited by the slobbish Minote Warholic and staffed by an eccentric band of misanthropes with names like Duxbak, Ratnaster, Clucker and Discknickers. Eyestones has been seeing -- with the intermittent frequency and heat of a sputtering light bulb -- Warholic's estranged wife, Laura, while obsessing over the unobtainable bakery employee Rapunzel Wisht. Although apparently a Vietnam veteran, Eyestones acts like a teenager, idealizing Rapunzel while cataloguing Laura's every fault. The intensity of this scrutiny is magnified by the torrent of insults offered by Minote Warholic, most of Quink's staff and several others. They present Laura's defects in eloquent and lengthy detail, "slacker and total skullcase" being perhaps the most understated of these comments. Eyestones becomes complicit in this character assassination by his silence, a passivity also exemplified by his unwillingness to either ditch Laura or commit to her.

Theroux's use of metaphor in these sections remains as startling and daring in its brilliance as in his masterpiece, Darconville's Cat (1981). Through the early pages of this new novel, Theroux's genius appears to reflect a generosity of spirit toward character akin to that of 19th-century influences like Dickens and Trollope. However, it soon becomes clear that Theroux is using his amazing powers of grotesquery and caricature to make almost everyone look morally, ethically and intellectually ugly. As a result, the reader's delight at Theroux's descriptive powers quickly changes to disgust at the unrelenting brutishness of these characters, and that disgust, finally, is transformed into boredom as the barrage of details and constant repetitions begin to seem not only gratuitous but insulting to the reader.

Theroux does try to vary the tone and form of Laura Warholic. In addition to insults that have the wit and bawdiness of Shakespearean monologues, he includes pages of Eyestones's sex columns, notes for columns, a fairy tale and often scandalous monologues on Jews, religion and lust. In the middle of a lengthy road trip during which Laura and Eyestones argue their way across the United States, Theroux even offers up chapters on sex and democracy, hodge-podge collections of facts and observations with no particular organization. Darconville's Cat also contained digressions, but they served to intensify that novel's effect. Here, where the main characters practice indecision, digressions merely intensify the lack of movement.

Near the end of Laura Warholic, after the mismatched couple has broken up, Eyestones has a change of heart. He wonders: "Had not he blundered by looking at Laura far too closely, just as he had looked at Rapunzel from far too great a distance? Would not his attempt at solving both riddles have been avoided in a state of proper balance?" This epiphany is offered up around Christmas, that most sentimental of holidays, and it is so jejune -- creates a portrait of a character unaware through so many hundreds of pages -- that I began to wonder if Theroux meant for his novel to be satire, and satire only. But surely not. Surely he means to be sincere on some level because otherwise we have read his mammoth undertaking only to be told that life is a pointless farce, and that is not an answer worth enduring all these pages.

It seems only appropriate that Laura Warholic ends with a two-paragraph lecture from the author after the main characters have exited the stage. A little more space for the reader, a little less for the author, and this fiercely intelligent, frustrating, disturbing, wonderful, dawdling, horrible and ultimately didactic novel might have been a masterpiece. *

Jeff VanderMeer's latest novel is "Shriek: An Afterword," and he currently serves as a guest editor for Best American Fantasy.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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