Sex Brainiac

Laura Warholic: or The Sexual Intellectual BY Alexander Theroux. Fantagraphics. Hardcover, 600 pages. $29.

The cover of Laura Warholic: or The Sexual Intellectual

Alexander Theroux once declared revenge the “single most informing element of great world literature,” transcending even “love and war, with which themes . . . it has more than passing acquaintance.” Revenge, Theroux suggests, also drives authors to create. George Orwell, he points out, figured the “desire . . . to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood” to be among one’s first motivations for writing.

Theroux’s novels are close cousins to Jacobean revenge plays: No plan unfolds without dire consequences. Yet they’re also meditations on how anger consumes us, and they’re steeped in the classics— Rabelais, Montaigne, and Juvenal (whose satires excoriated vice and corruption in the Roman Empire) are Theroux’s allies— and wrought in a style favoring the artful curlicue and fascinating tangent over “less is more” economizing.

Laura Warholic tells the story of Laura Warholic and Eugene Eyestones. Laura is the former wife of Minot Warholic, the editor of Quink, a Boston-based magazine that realizes the impossible mashup of Jonathan Swift’sTatler and the Village Voice. She harbors dark thoughts about her father, her ex, and a record-store clerk/lead singer she’s drawn to for no good reason. In her journals, she records every slight. Writing contains her anger, binding it with sentences. Characters who don’t write pose greater dangers. Micepockets, Laura’s landlord, a man as rodentlike as his name, stalks her. When he observes her talking to the clerk, he vandalizes her bike, then rushes home and, in a quick and disturbing sequence, beats his wife with an electrical cord.

Eugene is a columnist at Quink, contributing essays on relationships. “What in Love or Sex Isn’t Odd?” is a typical topic, tackled by the Sexual Intellectual in one chapter-long meditation. (Imagine if Samuel Johnson were a sex columnist.) “What ever happened,” Eugene wonders, “to the power of profundity of love, the long-lost world, say, of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered when the beautiful Syrian, Erminia, who, desperately in love with Tancred and finding him fallen in combat, cuts off her hair to staunch his bleeding?”

The manifold ways Laura peeves him, especially with her fondness for underground rock and bleeding-edge popular culture, inspire him to write, and he adopts her as a cause. If he converts her, perhaps he can save civilization from “the virus of lost standards that he was convinced plagued the nation.” Laura idolizes the Craven Slucks, a local band. Eugene plays the violin, recites poetry, and quotes from movies of the ’30s as if they were still showing. On an optimistic lark, they take a road trip through the tacky heart of America. As traveling companions go, they’re as mismatched as Lolita and Humbert. Laura tells Eugene about the time she and a friend saw Cheap Trick. When Eugene fought in Vietnam, he brought his eleventh-edition set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and kept favorite lines by Fernando Pessoa tucked under his helmet. Still, Eugene believes he’ll teach Laura to value what he loves. Or maybe he loves her and just wants to share. Or perhaps his loneliness reaches out to her desperation, and he mistakes her anxious grasp for fondness.

Back home, Eugene withdraws into monkish solitude, his preferred state. When Laura gets angry, he starts to care again. Yet when he makes himself available, she’s aloof. The novel traces this nasty cycle, and Eugene worries about what it means to be with another person: Is the self preserved or abandoned, or is it somehow doubled and made more powerful? Eugene follows this line of thought from relationships, unions of two, through larger clubs and camps, to the nation and its democratic principles. The plot of the novel is hardly baroque, but Theroux’s ideas could amply furnish a mansion of rooms. Speaking once of his third novel, An Adultery (1987), Theroux said, “Plot didn’t interest me in the least. Character is plot, anyway.”

Theroux poses not just a clash between two generations or cultures but also an unnecessary fight between two similarly limited people, both seeking, though they hardly know it, grace, generosity of spirit, and a deep pool of sympathy. And yet Laura knows only what she’s experienced personally and bothers to learn little else. Eugene, suffering the sort of nostalgia Nabokov called “an insane companion,” looks back to the past and, like every social critic, views the present as an age of lead. If only they could see the rest.

Eugene is no quitter. His mission means too much to him, and to Theroux. Eugene no sooner vows to see Laura for herself and not as some moral bellwether than his life collides with those of Micepockets, seeking revenge, and the record-store clerk, who remains clueless. It’s a grand tragedy, and one Theroux earns. Not since William Gaddis’s The Recognitions has a novel addressed the fallen present with such anger, love, and eloquence. Theroux writes with a vehemence that grows out of affection, an assertion of value phrased as an attack. At an area hotel, a broken neon sign reads GOD LESS AMERICA. There, Eugene thinks, is the problem made crystal. “The country itself was becoming a spiritual void, a place of mad materialism and increasingly bereft of meaning, one of the cities of the plain, a failed experiment, a ruined testament to lost ideals and capable of the most wretched excesses.” But like the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby, another novel about a fallen world, symbols exist in the beholder’s eyes. They may only be signs signifying nothing, advertisements for a busted business that happens to overlook the valley of ashes where we all now live.

Paul Maliszewski is a writer based in Washington,D.C.