Laura Warholic: Or the Sexual Intellectual
by Alexander Theroux
A review by Scott Bryan Wilson
Alexander Theroux's new novel, released twenty years after his previous one, is 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. It's what you'd expect from an encyclopedic novel: wandering, erudite, funny, opinionated, didactic, repetitive. But unlike other mega-novels of the past few decades, Laura Warholic presents a fairly straightforward tale: Eugene Eyestones, a near-blind, Bible-quoting, record-collecting Vietnam vet turned journalist, writes a sex column for a magazine called Quink, where he works in the employ of the enormous, revolting, bullying Warholic (who throughout the book is only referred to by his surname). Enter Warholic's ex-wife, Laura Warholic née Shqumb, a woman who "was never rational, brave, fastidious, exact, friendly, meticulous, cheerful, clean, precise, orderly, accurate, loyal, constant, disciplined, scrupulous, particular, kind, or faithful."
Laura, "about whom farce always hovered," is one of the most desperately sad characters of contemporary literature. She latches onto Eyestones in an attempt to escape loneliness and avoid her problems, though the pair never share a sexual or romantic relationship (much is made of Laura's ugliness and undesirability -- she's created out of what characteristics she doesn't possess rather than any detectable virtues). Eugene, feeling sorry for her, invites her to come with him on a cross-country road trip to buy records, a journey which allows Theroux to let loose: a cacophonic satire of the demerits of Boston and the New England accent is one of several bravura sections of the novel. While Laura is searching for acceptance, Eugene pines after the mysterious Rapunzel, whom he doesn't have the guts to speak to, and the entire of staff of Quink bitches, moans, and bickers. We've come to expect many subplots in the contemporary mega-novel, and while there are many here, most consist of single chapter digressions -- few run the length of the work, one of many ways Theroux doesn't allow Laura Warholic to be easily categorized or pigeonholed.
Importantly, Theroux has centered his novel around an unlovable, unlikable, and horrifically depressed woman, countering the typical sassy/witty/beautiful/lovable heroine of most novels. The eponymous antagonist is shown in a dismal light -- utterly pathetic in every way -- yet she's the emotional center of the story, a center which encompasses only negative emotions. While the bulk of the novel is dedicated to Laura and Eugene's relationship, and mainly to Laura herself, there is a large cast of characters: all have absurd names and are defined by their eccentricities. But outside of Laura, and including Eugene, no character is particularly likable or unlikable. Even the anti-Semitic Discknickers comes off less offensive than just differently-eccentric from his co-workers at Quink, a cast of misfits and miscreants closer to Looney Tunes than the staff of an actual magazine. They're all written with an emotional shallowness mirroring a society that frequents "loud, high-gloss, postapocalyptic mega-malls rimmed with fast-food eateries and video monitors and banks of lights for miles outside."
Though subtitled The Sexual Intellectual, which is the name of Eugene's column, not much is made of the column itself (though "the sexual intellectual" could also refer to the columnist, one of Theroux's beloved paradoxes: Eyestones is perhaps the least sexual sex columnist one can imagine). Outside of a few brief glimpses at the beginning of the book, and one 35-page controversial misogynistic essay (which Warholic, punctuating his reading with belches and various comments, finally pronounces is "harsh on the chicks"), we see nothing much of Eugene's writing.
The semi-plotlessness of the book echoes the aimlessness and desperation of Laura's life, and really, most of the other characters' lives as well. There are brief discursive jaunts into hopeful scenarios, but to the reader it's obvious that these are just more futile attempts at finding a fulfilling way to live, or, even more bleakly, finding a way to camouflage the pain of existence. All of this is summed up quite well when Eyestones says, "I decided at one point in my life that I never wanted to be anything that would not allow me to be anything else I wanted to be....I ended up being nothing that I can currently identify, which I suppose means I got my wish."
Laura Warholic contains many wonderful stretches written in the sharpest prose, lengthy chapters that often break down into pages and pages of lists or questions. There's a lengthy discussion of gossip about the imperfections of Marilyn Monroe; a wickedly funny putdown of the city of San Diego; the aforementioned Boston rant; and an outrageous monologue by Chasuble, the flamboyantly gay Quink film critic. Theroux's vocabulary is somewhat legendary, his similes are terrific, and the novel is peppered with cultural references, from minor Disney character Gyro Gearloose to electronica band Autechre. Perhaps most impressive are his physical descriptions of characters: "While a morbid fatness blurred [Warholic's] features, making it impossible for his face even to hold any other expression than the discontented and cantankerous hoggishness that was habitual to it, its lineaments always rattled into focus when he set his menace loose." Theroux's savaging of our culture never descends into easy (and tired) Paris Hilton/Starbucks/Britney Spears one-liners, but the novel does has some sloppy aspects: a few jokes and similes get repeated, at times it feels overlong, and occasionally a convergence of inflexible opinion and didacticism lend a preachy feeling to the text, but these moments are only sporadic, and forgivable in a work of such depth and length. These complaints are minor quibbles in what is a funny, sad, and original satire of our funny, sad contemporary culture.
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