Reviewed by Josh Billings
Like an asteroid or an Olympic gymnast, Alexander Theroux’s Estonia is heavier than it looks. Part of this, I think, is due to its paper, which is thick and, in my copy at least, pleasantly fragrant. Another part, however, must be the words themselves. American literature is full of purists, the most famous of whom, Ernest Hemingway, complained about his sesquipedalian rival William Faulkner, “He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Like most of Hemingway’s brags this one is bellowing and slightly idiotic, but it illuminates a very real American insecurity. Words. Do we know the big ones? Of course we do: we just choose not to use them. Put this way our silence is transformed, from a source of shame to a sign of election. “The secret sits in the middle and knows,” to quote Robert Frost, who liked to put things simply. Or as John McCabe mutters, half to himself and half to Mrs. Miller, who is not around to hear him, “I got poetry in me!
It is impossible, unfortunately, to know what price Hemingway would have put on Alexander Theroux’s vocabulary, but we can speculate. As authors go, he is a strange case. On the one hand, his brilliance and mastery of effects place him squarely in the linguistic one percent. On the other, he is generous with his wealth, and in a way that seems to set him against both Hem’s grumbling tight-fistedness and the more “serious” tours-de-force of his contemporaries. Playful though they may look, Great American Novels are still built to fly; but Theroux’s books don’t seem to be built for anything. Like the Lisa Marie or Hound Dog II, they sprawl across their runways in gaudy magnificence, loaded with words gold-plated past any possible function. Such display may sound exhausting, and it is at times; but at its best (in his two books on the primary and secondary colors, for example) Theroux’s linguistic opulence is actually quite refreshing. Unlike most of contemporary writing, it remains unseduced by the Flaubertian view of words as tools that must serve a purpose. Words are still useful to Theroux, of course—but in addition to being useful they are also beautiful, fascinating, weird, cool. Buoyed by his love of them, he can get carried away; but being carried away he can also arrive somewhere unexpected. His Willie Wonka-ish glee overflows its subjects like a chocolate wave swamping a parking lot. Here for example he imagines his upcoming trip:
Little Estonia. Sancho Panza. Peewee. A collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs. I will say right off that I was eager to go to Estonia, or who would deny that to wake up to find oneself in any new place is surely one of the major thrills of being alive? When suddenly I awakened to find myself there, so abruptly it seemed to be without explanation, my only thought was: just splendid: no one ever comes here and that’s the delight!
Like all journeys, great or not, Theroux’s year-long stay in Estonia begins in his head, with an idea about what his time there will look like. In this case, the story he tells himself sounds pretty typical; but there is a critical wrinkle in the matter of setting. Instead of picturesque Southern France, or the hip nooks of Iceland, Theroux starts in a shit-cold dorp (“dutch: a small rural village or town”) whose most tangible characteristic seems to be its broad lack of appeal to outsiders. For Theroux, it is precisely this lack of obvious attraction that makes Estonia so appealing. “A veritable forest of unreadable signs,” he says—meaning, of course, “a veritable forest of signs that no one yet has been able, or willing, to read.” A new land, in other words: a blank page. The perfect place for a writer with plenty of words to spare.
He spares none of them, of course; on the contrary, he deploys wave after wave of his little darlings, combing through Estonian literature, politics, cuisine, culture and everything else with indomitable, almost boyish curiosity. What he finds, he tells, with ecstasy, excitement, or frustration. The last especially—for Theroux’s book is not one of those celebratory whitewashes, in which every unpalatable impression is suppressed and every little mishap smoothed over. If anything, he seems to delight especially in the ways that his host country gets life uniquely wrong:
Estonia, before all else, is anomalyville. It is not necessarily fully assbackwards but, to the orthodox Western mind, surely a country of distinct oddballism. They sell beer there that is actually made out of fermented bread. Doors open outward… In bookstores, the prices are always maddeningly penciled in at the back of books, never in the front. Toilet-paper rolls always sit loose on a straight-open rod and so easily tumble off… Many people garden mother-naked in the summer, but then, ironically, will not deign to speak to you.
Such gleeful nitpickery can seem parodic at times—but then it’s important to remember how important parody is to travel narratives. From Sterne to Pushkin to Theroux’s brother Paul, the genre’s exemplars are littered with disasters—otherwise, why would we read them? “All happy travelers are alike,” to paraphrase Tolstoy, which is one of the main reasons we have no desire to read about happy travelers. At the very least, it is why we lick our readerly chops at the prospect of a journey gone horribly wrong. The broken axle, the puddle-jumper, the board-on-the-ground shithole: details like this delight, not because we want to be confirmed in our homebodiness, but because secretly we know that that’s what travel is like. In this way, books like Estonia follow the same debunking impulse that informs their more serious-minded cousins, novels. Bring us closer to the way it really feels, meaning: show us something that appeals to our inner sense of how difficult things are.
A complainer of genius, Theroux satisfies our curmudgeonly desires over and over again, but there are limits to disenchantment, or rather rhythms of it, past which I felt Estonia’s brocade beginning to sag. After days spent riding Theroux’s glass elevator, his tour began to feel like a sort of trick or feat, in which Estonia the country served less as a focus than an excuse for display. Watch the Amazing Mind, which can turn even the most boring country in the world into something interesting! At times like this, Theroux’s vocabulary becomes tired and his disdain Luciferian. “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell,” said Milton’s great traveler, expressing perfectly the claustrophobia of congealed attention. So there are parts of Estonia in which the brilliant prose seems to be reflecting more on its author:
Glowering in Estonia seems to provide in old and young alike a kind of social protection. Smiles are rare. A given smile there reveals you as a stranger. I promise you, I am not being insensitive, merely dislike churls. I yet have nightmares about Gilbert Osmond and can still tear-up when reading again of sweet Cathy Morland being coldly and brutally sent home in the middle of the night by General Tilney from Northanger Abbey. Estonians actually consider people who smile a bunch of gladhanders, clouted buffoons of a sort, indiscreet, yam-in-the-mouth, overfraternizing yahoos. Italians are always smiling. It is the same in Thailand. In Japan, before the Meiji era began, any person who failed to smile in the presence of a social superior could legally be killed then and there by the superior in question. This may explain why travelers find the Japanese a smiling race. Not so in Estonia. In Estonia, not a soul returning your change, giving you direction, booking a room, selling you a book, wrapping a package, pouring you coffee, or thanking you returns a smile. As a visitor, do not expect it. Take it off the table. It is too expensive. It gives too much away. It demands too much commitment. “We must prefer real Hell to imaginary paradise” is the way that the eccentric but bold mystic Simone Weil expressed a certain kind of low, stepped-down attitude, a scabrous over-sober presentation, grimness of face. I am extrapolating Weil to explain Estonians. (She was spiritual; they are material.) Paradise, like smiles, is fake, people there seem to be saying.
Sweaty with AM-radio bluster, rants like these at least have the merit of wearing their heart on their sleeves—a big “at least” in my book. They wheedle and plead with an anger that Hemingway, for example, would have never dreamed (or dared) of using—and in that way, I think, they bring a vulnerability to Estonia that is missing both from other travel books, and from other Theroux books. An author who specializes in tours-de-force, he has written a messy, sprawling account of a tiny country; at the same time, he has given us a portrait of a peculiarly-under-reported type of modern traveler: the year-in-residencer, equal parts dilettante, enthusiast, tourist, and scholar. As anyone who has been in an airport before can tell you, the world is full of people like this, many of whom harbor the secret desire to eventually tie up the loose ends of their adventures in a single work of art. Some of them do, too, writing exciting, adventure-filled books (or songs, or gum advertisements) that elide entirely the boredom, confusion, and loneliness of expatriate life. For whatever reason, Theroux has not decided to do this. On the contrary, he leaves his mistakes in, soaking his pages with so much experience that, after a few hours spent turning them, we can barely move.