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Reviews in Brief: Vian, Everett, Theroux

M. J. Nicholls

Vercoquin and the Plankton
Boris Vian (tr. Terry Bradford)
Wakefield Press, November 2022

Written in the same fertile half-decade as Vian’s two classics—the notorious I Spit on Your Graves and the glorious Froth on the Daydream a.k.a Mood Indigo a.k.a Foam of the Days—this long-untranslated novel is a variation on the surreal wonderment of the latter, a less appetising variant of Vianic va-va-voom and bippety-bippety-bop and sca-sca-sca-sca-scat. Anyone who has seen Michel Gondry’s sublime adaptation of Mood Indigo with Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris—a little slice of cinematic heaven that perfectly captures the effervescent lunacy of Vian’s vision—will identify the same youthful flipness and witty malarkey (including sentient mackintoshes) in this recent addition to the English canon from Terry Bradford.

Vercoquin was written along side Vian’s first novel Trouble dans les andains in 1942-1943, and both remained unpublished until 1966, seven years after his death. In the similar spirit of his other works, as Bradford observes, the novel may be read as a “social documentary, a scathing satire, and a jazz manifesto,” and the cryptic punnage and boundless silliness led many critics to dismiss the novel as juvenilia. Vian’s early works have that childlike impishness and awe-struck reverence for the possibility of language to create mischief, conjure up roaring gales of laughter, and to traverse the vast unexplored tundras of the imagination, common across his whole short canon, which is all anyone expects from this cheeky master.

Dr. No
Percival Everett
Greywolf Press, November 2022

In Everett’s riotous return to comedy following the harrowing heights of Telephone and the brutal satire of The Trees, America’s most prolific and multifaceted novelist serves up a tremendous riff on the realm of Fleming. Wala Kitu (Tagalog words for nothing) is a lecturer on nothing—a svengali of nihil who stimulates his students with wild musings on zip, nada, and zilch—whose non-expertise is purchased by self-styled supervillain John Sill who intends to have his revenge on the America that took him less than seriously. His sidekick is Eigen Vector, a mathematician caught in the spell of Sill whose flip evilness provides the strongest and most violent laughs.

Everett’s commitment to sending up the tropes of Bond extends far beyond trapdoors to shark-infested pools (although there is one here), but into a far wittier realm of wordplays about nothing its (non)-self and the mathematical and philosophical contexts of nix, nil, and nowt in relation to our own lives of no significance. Kitu is an inverted Bond—an asexual academic on the autism spectrum who has never driven a car or touched a woman and has a close relationship with his canine Trigo—and is a far more charming presence than the superannuated cliché of vintage Bond movies this novel sends up with sneering vim. Everett is a master of the comedic novel—one that actually elicits a real riptide of LOLs in the reader, not the smirking and oh-so-droll sort found everywhere else—making Dr. No an excellent primer for the curious or those seeking the much-needed salve of hilarity in these terminally unfunny times.

Early Stories
Alexander Theroux
Tough Poets Press, August 2021

Alexander Theroux
Tough Poets Press, December 2021

Slowly treacling into print after half a century, Theroux’s short stories are finally available to all long-suffering Therouvians in three lavish volumes (Later Stories review coming soon) from Tough Poets Press. In the first volume, Theroux serves up a series of character studies à la ‘A Woman with Sauce’, a caustic takedown of a doughy harridan fiercely protective of her secret pasta sauce recipe. Other stories are spun from the writer’s travels, capturing quirks of dialect and mannerisms, such as ‘Fark Pooks’, where pornographic magazines are covertly smuggled into the room of a minister by an impish Moscovian porter, ‘An English Railroad’, where an interminable English pub bore feverishly addled with nostalgia is perfectly parodied, as are the Old World pretensions of a Grande Dame of letters in ‘A Wordstress in Williamsburg’. Elsewhere, ‘Summer Bellerophon’ furthers the theme of nymphet lust explored in Darconville’s Cat, and ‘Chosen Locksley Swims the Tiber’ paints a rather dewy-eyed portrait of beauty within a broadly comic poke at the fashion industry. Less successful stories here are the misfires ‘Scugnizzo’s Pasta Co’ and ‘The Copernicus Affair’, where the mockery spins queasily close to overt racism, or the humour is merely frozen in the period in which the stories were written. Theroux’s prose, sentence-by-sentence is among the most stylishly tantalising and exquisite in the American canon, punching up there with Gass and Nabokov in terms of sheer readerly ecstasy, and this collection is an essential read for anyone who wants to be lifted aloft on wings of heavenly prose mastery and led lovingly into rib-tickling comic vistas in the spirit of Fielding and Dickens.

Similarly, a mere twenty-seven years after Dalkey Archive shelved their plans to publish Theroux’s Fables, the collection is finally available from the unstoppable Tough Poets—among the finest unburyers of lost classics active today. Opening with the fables previously published in illustrated volumes such as ‘The Great Wheadle Tragedy’—short fancies of doggerel less charming when stripped of their artistic accompaniment—the volume travels mainly to Europe for a series of character studies similarly rich in accumulated detail and Jamesian perceptivity as those in Early Stories. The novella ‘The Curse of the White Cartonnage’ sees two scheming antique hunters seeking to snaffle precious cartonnage (ancient Egyptian material made from papyrus or linen) from newly arrived neighbours, with invariably parlous consequences. One recurring feature in these stories is Theroux’s love for trivia, ribboning every story with a blizzard of knowledge woven into the tapestry of the characters’ histories, a technique that occasionally detracts from the story (Theroux has published umpteen books of trivia) but makes for a truly encyclopaedic and incredibly rich reading adventure in the manner of the sexiest Victorian prolixers. The volume also features several fantastical poems in the fable mould.


M. J. Nicholls