“Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories” by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 359 pages, $27)
“Art is swindle,” counseled the German refugee teacher and painter Josef Albers, whose book “Interaction of Color” has become a classic, though in practice at Black Mountain and later at Yale, Albers rarely strayed from a deliberate approach to his work, stripping away decoration, illustration and, yes, even expression from his painting, winding up with blocks of color that produced surprising effects on viewers. Paul Theroux’s new book of collected stories (most previously published in The New Yorker, Harpers and The Atlantic) leads off with an over-heated little number called “Minor Watt,” so-named after the transgressive title character, a spiteful old goat whose great wealth has led him not to treasure his collection (sculpture, modern oil painting, ceramics, etc.), but to destroy it in public, piece by beautiful piece, in a deft attempt to outrage and horrify the gallery-world.
Art is not only swindle, but hyper-swindle. He gets a taste for swindle when his ex-wife Sonia drops by the penthouse to pick up a priceless Chinese vase, part of the divorce settlement. Minor lets it drop to the floor, where it shatters into countless shards at the feet of his horrified ex-wife. “Sorry,” Minor says softly. After a series of bizarre episodes in which Minor conducts more and more creative acts of destruction, Theroux writes, “more ingenious in devising ways to destroy these works of art, each one appropriate to the object, his intention was to make the destruction as memorable as the object itself: the memory of extinction.” If art is swindle, Theroux seems to argue, its destruction in public ought to be equally delicious by way of spectacle.
Sadly for Minor Watt, he’s later caught up with Mara, an out-of-work gallery clerk, who is vaguely Asiatic and winds up first tantalizing Minor and then outright humiliating him with a Burmese dah dagger, sending him naked into the city streets streaming blood from a neck wound. The art world stands front-and-center in another Theroux story, “Mrs. Everest”, the title character of which is a gallery grande dame whose frosty opinions and hard-to-scale esteem mark her as a taste-maker and reputation-breaker. The narrator, by contrast, is a painter praised for his “impartial realism,” but not by Mrs. Everest, who regards his portraits and landscapes as “so self-explanatory as to be banal.” More to Mrs. Everest’s taste is a work by the artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, which Theroux describes as “175 pounds of wrapped candy heaped against a wall.” In Theroux’s telling, it takes a number of years for the narrator to break away from the clutch of sycophant moths fluttering around Mrs. Everest’s flame. Taken together, “Minor Watt” and “Mrs. Everest” can be taken only peripherally as stories about the art world; rather, they reflect the now dominant influence of great wealth in American society and how money deflects and dampens originality and freedom of thought, not to mention the lamentable effect of highfalutin criticism on artists’ and writers’ self-esteem.
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Paul Theroux is a very famous writer, whose 15 works of highly sportive and keenly observed travel books are almost all classics. In his travels, Theroux takes the dim view of human nature, one that allows him to navigate through some pretty distasteful, even dangerous places, ever ready for the next disappointment or surprise. He seems a man who, in real life, doesn’t mind riding the twin rails of whimsy and fear, watching them ever-converge at a horizon just over there. A book like “Dark Star Safari” or “The Last Train to Zona Verde” will scare the pants off any reader, yet feel at the same time like a dose of pure oxygen. The 30 works of fiction are less consistent, more sanguine, and contain a number of outright embarrassments, though just as often real gems and a classic here and there (“My Other Life,” “My Secret History” and “Saint Jack”). “Twenty Stories” is much the same, an uneven collection, featuring many transgressive males behaving rather badly.
In the title story, for example, a youthful narrator contemplates his dead father from a distance of 10 years. He recalls his father as a distant and incomprehensible man, a jovial fellow without qualities, wit or smarts, under the thumb of a dominant wife. And then one day, the singing group he enjoys decides to put on a minstrel show. Over a short period of time, Dad transforms himself into Mr. Bones, telling lustful and other off-color jokes around the house, singing minstrel tunes, turning himself out in Black Face at every opportunity, even adopting the pose of Mr. Interlocutor at times. The family, in part distressed and in part mystified, can do nothing while Dad becomes cruel and manic before their eyes. Show over, Dad reverts to the meek shoe salesman he once was. Equally, in “Our Raccoon Year” another hapless dad is plagued by raccoons, who eat the garden, infest the attic, and roam at will through the house at night. Trapping first, then poisoning, then outright bludgeoning the raccoons becomes Dad’s raison d’etre, to the extent that he loses his reason. In “Another Necklace”, a writer on tour receives threatening text messages which lead him to disaster; or, in “Siamese Nights” an American contract worker in Thailand falls in love with a transvestite who holds him in thrall to the point of suffocation; or, in “The Furies”, a middle-aged dentist jettisons his portly first wife to marry a comely assistant, only to find disaster in a bevy of harpies at a high school reunion. In “Rip it Up”, a threesome of unhappy nerd teenagers discover in bomb-making both their psychological revenge on bullies and their undoing.
Stylistically, Theroux’s short fiction is plagued by serial commas, run-on adjectives, and strange syntax. (“But he knew she was a lady-boy, cute, rather small, pigtails, a miniskirt, knee socks.”) Sometimes, Theroux writes puzzling sentences (“That night, the Wednesday, Osier went to Siamese Nights.”). And, of course, Theroux utilizes the infamous sentence fragment as well. His transgressive males, impending disasters full of violent threat and menace, as well ambiguous sexuality plaguing both genders, all remind one of short stories by W.W. Jacobs, Saki, O.Henry, and even Guy de Maupassant. And in most of Theroux’s stories, the leitmotif of revenge lurks: In “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife”, a man takes an insidious Scheherazade-like revenge on a dying high school teacher who had abused him years before.
“Twenty Stories” is an uneven collection at best. But one must give Theroux his due. He holds to his vision, revealing to his readers a deep commitment to dark truths held close to the vest, then let out in the world to flutter in the dark like cave bats.
Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.