THE PRIMARY COLORS: Three Essays by Alexander Theroux


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What a luminous idea, to devote a trio of poetic essays to the three primary colors. Too bad that Theroux, author of the overstuffed intellectual novels Darconville's Cat (1981) and An Adultery (1987), opts to dazzle with pedantry rather than to patiently set out the distinctions and contrasts that make for true illumination. Each essay is a monologue on one color, rambling associatively across not only art history, literature, history, and popular culture, but also through natural history, chemistry, and metaphysics. To convey more information about the cultural significance of blue, of yellow, and of red would seem humanly impossible. One person might particularly enjoy Theroux's occasional discussions of the derivation of paint pigments; another might be taken with his accounts of the colors of foods, or with the roles of a color in religious rituals. Yet while Theroux's interests are encyclopedic in scope, his essays suffer correspondingly from their lack of any internal organization whatsoever. He clearly aspires to compose prose poems, and he succeeds on the largest possible level: Each essay's color and color word suffuse it so thoroughly as to create an almost hypnotic visual effect. But the gimmick wears thin, and the portentous tone that comes with running together erudite facts all higgledy-piggledy becomes annoying. The book as a whole finally sinks to the level of the commonplaces that, in the absence of any index or plan, anchor its purpler passages. For all the Proustian extravagance of Theroux's paean to yellow gems, or the effective minimalism of his survey of blue in painting, what stands out are transitional remarks like ""the color blue figures powerfully in art,"" ""love is red,"" or (in reference to yellow), ""warnings attract attention, and must."" If Theroux had not left these essays so self-indulgently unstructured, he might have produced a small classic. As it stands, the reader must stumble over random truisms -- not to mention wading through too much overwriting -- to find the occasional nugget of gold. They may seem brilliant at a distance and will fascinate in some of their details. But from the still-crucial perspective of readability, Theroux's primary colors seem, sadly, a muddle.

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 1994
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Henry Holt