Pilgrim of the Absolute: An Interview with Alexander Theroux

INTERVIEWED BY THOMAS FILBIN

Alexander Theroux, novelist, poet, and essayist, is a man deliberately out of sync with his times. His work is both postmodernist and neo-classical, and he weaves both sensibilities into his writing. His mentality is that of a Renaissance man, while he tweaks and insults the mundane thoughtlessness of modern life far too hung up on appearance and dogma. It is no coincidence that “Thoreau” and “Theroux” play on one another. He is a man who marches to the beat of his own drummer.

His most recent novel Laura Warholic, or The Sexual Intellectual and his Collected Poems have been published by Fantagraphics Books. He answered some questions recently by e-mail from his home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

TF: Did you write at a very early age?

AT: On rainy days when we were tots we diddled and doodled with pencils and crayons. As preadolescents, our deeply committed, proud, and engaging father who had a distinct historical bent, as well as an abiding love of old Boston, Concord, Lexington, and environs, on Sunday afternoons would dutifully take his young boys on local treks and to various historic places—“take-ins” he called them—places like the Old North Church, “Old Ironsides,” the Agassiz Museum, Walden Pond, Concord Bridge, Jack gardner’s Palace, the whaling museum in New Bedford, the House of the Seven Gables, etc.). When we returned my parents encouraged us to write small essays in our composition books on what we had remembered and experienced. Our folks also read to us on most nights at bedtime, and we actually grew up thrilling to names like James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving. “Great Authors”—peopling my dreams—were then, as now my only heroes.

I was also deeply influenced by radio programs back in the 1940s and early radio drama (Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, Sky King, The Lone Ranger, Lights Out, Cavalcade of America, etc.) as well as early Disney movies (Pinocchio, Cinderella, Dumbo). I recall with nostalgia watching on television an early sci-fi film called The Phantom Empire starring Gene Autry that for its imaginative narrative, and odd music plunked me full-scale into the weird world of fiction and made me pine for and dream of writing stories.

Coover, Barth, and Pynchon published in the 1960s; did they influence you with a new way of writing (not conventional realism), or was the metafictional impulse something that was gestating in you on its own?

AT: Those three meant nothing to me. My eye was focused both earlier and later on denser, classic, more magnetic writers. I was fascinated even in high school with Shakespeare, the Jacobean playwrights, the novels of Dickens, Juvenal, The Aeneid, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (speaking of metafiction!), Alexander Pope. Homer. I can still fondly recall many details from childhood favorites of mine, School Days in Disneyville (1939), Winnie the Pooh, Make Way for Ducklings, The Five Chinese Brothers, Dr. Seuss’s The 500 hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Epaminondas, So Dear to My Heart, Sonny Elephant, etc.

Did your experiences in religious life carry over to your writing later?

The church taughalex1t me about the mystery of wandering, what Gabriel Marcel called “homo viator”, man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, man on a journey through this valley of tears. My dreams of writing were never unconnected with the metaphysical aspects that asked who we are and why and where we are all going, questions of being and becoming, of faith and disbelief. I have been saturated since I was a boy in the Christian mystery and miracle. I can honestly say I am literally astonished when meeting thinkers whose questions and answers to the universe are different. In this regard, Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew in passing—we won Lannan Grants together in 1991—could have come from another planet.

Some critics have called your work misogynistic. The easy question would be: “Do you deny that this is so?” A harder question is: “Even though you disagree, do you see why they feel this way?

Women and cars (car trouble at the side of the road) alone have made me weep in life! Seriously, love, the conflicts of love, jealousy, abandonment and loss of love and all its variants, provide the most intriguing plots in fiction. I have written as satirically about men as I have of women. Dr. Crucifer, a character in my novel, Darconville’s Cat (1982), was an articulate and mad, rant-oriented misogynist, however, and someone whom I had so much fun writing about, making him if I may say so indelibly drawn, that he gave serious ammunition, I suspect, to a good many readers who committing the “intentional fallacy” blithely chose to attribute his particular follies to me. I must say I do find women remarkably different than men, lovelier, at times more comical, warmer, certainly strung with opposite wires.

Do you think of yourself more as a poet or a novelist, or are they two sides of the same coin?

I cannot imagine a good writer not being able to write well in any genre, essays, plays, novels, poetry. Still, Herman Melville wasn’t a good poet, Hardy was. So was Poe. Hemingway wasn’t, neither was Malcolm Lowry, nor Thomas Pynchon, for that matter. It depends on your concentration, one’s needs. Henry James yearned to be a playwright but failed. Did he ever write any poetry? I don’t believe so. Oscar Wilde wrote a good novel and much good poetry and splendid plays. Life is brief. We are forced to choose our tournaments. I think energy accounts for a lot in the matter. Jonathan Swift was a .400 hitter.

Will canonical works like War and Peace just disappear because people are too busy or too engaged in the digital world and don’t hold literary traditions as important as they once were?

Tragically, or it seems to me, young people nowadays with their twittering and facebooking fascinations do not seem to need, to want, to love, or to choose books like War and Peace. It is not even in the conversation, is it? It is the Pilgrim of the Absolute who is a seeker. Why else are we here? I explained to my students that the sole and singular purpose of living was to find out the meaning of it. Were not Prince Andre and Pierre and Natasha classic examples of such seekers? We seem to lack the gravitas of that need nowadays, or possibly I am just too old to see it in play. We all of us need to be wayfarers to find the need to read—and to be constructively disturbed by!—books like Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace. One should never be the same after reading such books. It is a holy search—to be a quester. J. Alfred Prufrock for all of his faults was at least asking meaningful questions; I would warn my students who when reading T.S. Eliot’s poem would often cheaply find a need to mock Prufrock as a textbook neurotic, but in his way he was brave. We all of us live in parlous times, indeed. The church with its many pedophile scandals, hideous salacities, cover-ups, and corruptions seems in ways no longer a help, a church in which vocations are way down and the banalities of secularism prevail. There is a kind of Cartesian dislocation, a loss of a sense of place, that we now suffer—in a sense we can no longer find ourselves (if indeed we are looking) on the Great Chain of Being. In an interview on the occasion of his Jefferson Lecture in 1989 (‘The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind’) Walkealex2r Percy spoke of modern man as being “deranged, the literal sense of that term most appropriate to the Cartesian dislocation of the intellect that has hastened our displacement from a sense of being in the world,” according to Marion Montgomery in Walker Percy and the Christian Scandal. What, Percy wanted to know, were the options for characters populating this deranged world in which the church is no longer regnant, in fact a literal scandal in so many places. I fear that far too many people look around and see no derangement at all. Pathetic.

In the same vein: do you see appreciation for words and language receding in the shorthand of today’s texting, compression of communications, and slang? Are people and language becoming estranged?

We live in an age of supreme scruple. For all the so-called “communications” I see a fund of electronic equipment and lots of palaver and gabbling and email and talk shows and texting, if that is the correct word. I get the impression all of it consists of monologues and not dialogues.

Are you a writer ahead of your time or behind it?

Way behind the times. I don’t believe that I have very many readers as a result. I have never tailored my work for big sales nor written with a view to the screen. I am in the old George Eliot-mode, the old novel form, long chapters. It is a precarious business to be a writer of books. My book sales are and have always been meager and in fact truly embarrassing. I have published to date ten books—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I have six more completed manuscripts in boxes ready to be published. Not one of the eighty-eight essays that I have written and that have over the years been printed in magazines have been published in book form. I have no agent. My advances are small, almost derisive. Our little family is food-card poor.