Review of ‘The Primary Colors’

The Primary Colors
Alexander Theroux
University of Chicago Press

If you were to open a book at random and read the sentence "Oscar Wilde collected Blue Willow china," you might wonder what sort of book it was. Possibly a biography of Wilde? A guide to collecting old china? Or even a treatise on the curious habits and passions of collectors? If you were to suspect that you had stumbled upon an anthology of trivia, you would be closer to the mark. Yet this collection of essays on the three primary colors — blue, yellow and red — crammed with bits of information you are bound to forget before you've finished the next sentence, turns trivia into a high art. Each of these essays is like an Abstract Expressionist painting in one color, where words and facts replace the splashes and drips and brushstrokes in front of your eyes.

And like abstract art, the meaning of each essay is the writing itself, not really what it might be about. Alexander Theroux makes each color an excuse to let his mind, and the reader's, wander through worlds of science, art, literature, the movies, food, natural history, gossip, travel, history, music and most other branches of knowledge, experience and imagination. It would be almost impossible to index all the tributaries and offshoots of his stream of consciousness. All one can do is enjoy the wandering.

Consider how he introduces yellow: "It is the color of cowardice, third prize, the caution flag on auto speedways, adipose tissue, scones and honey, the nimbus of saints, school buses, urine, New Mexico license plates, illness, the cheeks of penguins, the sixth dog's livery in greyhound racing, highway signs, Pennzoil and the oddly lit hair before adulthood of all Australian aborigines."

The way he lets one fact lead to another in these essays has little or nothing to do with logic, but rather reflects on that intricate, exquisite, multidimensional spiderweb of neurons, the brain, wherein one thought can excite an unpredictable cascade of ideas, images, memories and other mental associations. Watching Theroux's brain at work is more like watching a pinball machine than an abacus.

Just watch. Here he meditates on the negative connotations of the color red: "Dr. Jekyll's evil potion in Robert Louis Stevenson's tale is 'a blood red liquor.' It was 'highly pungent to the sense of smell and seemed . . . to contain phosphorous and some volatile ether.' The name Holly Golightly used for hyperanxiety in Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffanys was the 'mean reds' ('when you're afraid and don't know what you're afraid of'). The Santa Ana winds-red wind, some people call it-blow in hot from the desert. The pika, that blinding flash of atomic light in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, brighter than a thousand suns, its searing heat 300,000 degrees centigrade at the hypo-center, was red."

In the essay on red we also find, "There is the three-hundred-year-old Rauchbier establishment in northern Bavaria, famous for its smoked meats and smoked beer, the old walls of which are still regularly painted with pure ox blood." And, more delicately, "The living room of Dorothy Parker's Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farm, bought in 1934 with Alan Campbell, her second husband, was painted in (count them) nine shades of red: pink, vermilion, scarlet, crimson, maroon, raspberry, rose, russet and magenta."

Like small rocks and pebbles washed along in Theroux's stream of consciousness, we bump into all kinds of information. It is hard to imagine finding all these sentences in any other mind. He seems to have read most of the books, been to most of the places, seen most of the movies, tasted most of the exotic dishes, looked at most of the paintings, and admired most of the natural and architectural splendors in the history of Homo sapiens.

Architectural splendors are a good example. As a variant of yellow, Theroux mentions Cadillac Gold. This makes him think at once of Donald Trump: "Donald Trump hated the original flat yellow handrails at the Trump Plaza. 'See that gold Cadillac down the street?' he told his interior designer. 'That's the color I want those handrails. Gold. Cadillac Gold. Not yellow like a daisy.'" And two paragraphs later we are gazing toward the other end of human history: "The single arch in the desert of Ctesiphon, lutescent and venerable, the largest single span of brick ever made by man, is all that remains of the ancient kingdom of Parthia."

Theroux takes us to many places. We find that the "most popular room at the Savile Club in London, founded in 1868, is the Sandpit, so called because of the yellow-beige decor of the sofas and armchairs around the fireplaces." Elsewhere, the "lemon-bright shop of Poujauran, that matchless patisserie on 20 rue Jean-Nicot in Paris, is, I would endeavor to add, also one of the great yellow places in the civilized world."

The Blue Room in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, "actually a sort of inner-sanctum lock-up vault for rare gems and not open to the public," he notes, "is painted government-issue blue and carpeted in an equally drab blue." Then he gives us a peek at his own bedroom: "My favorite blue, used on the walls of my bedroom, is a Benjamin Moore paint that being custom-mixed I had taken deeper, deeper, deeper. The formula is #832 plus BB3X, MG-1X, RO-1O."

An idiosyncratic history of art and film emerges in these pages. We find, for example, that "Douglas Fairbanks, a man whose swarthiness resembled an eggplant's, had dozens of yellow pajamas of heavy silk made for him in China." And that James McNeill Whistler indecorously wore yellow socks to the "Yellow and White" exhibition at London's Fine Arts Society in 1883. On Cezanne's apples, Theroux gives D. H. Lawrence's opinion that they were more important than Plato's ideas; and he quotes Raoul Dufy's retort to a critic who questioned the impossibly poetic blue of his seascapes: "Nature, my dear sir, is only an hypothesis."

I can imagine Theroux, were I to call his wordscapes a mindless mountain of information, replying that the mind, my dear sir, is only an hypothesis. And perhaps that is the point of his book.

There is so much else in it, I can share with you only a few of the sentences I enjoyed bumping into. I cannot place them in context. There is no context:

"Disraeli loved pyramids of strawberries on golden dishes."

"Incidentally, August A. Busch, of the beer family, often served his guests suckling pigs with red-painted toenails."

"Regarding wretched excesses, in the 1970s there were leisure suits that had both the nap and color of baby vomit."

"Nostradamus prophesied that the anti-Christ would wear a blue turban, although in Sikhism that very same symbol signifies a mind as broad as the sky."

"And the flowers of melilot, often used to flavor beer-and also cheese-are bright yellow, like scorzonera, a perennial plant with a root not unlike a carrot. . . ."

And of course, the sentence we began with, "Oscar Wilde collected Blue Willow china."

Paul Trachtman is a freelance reviewer who lives in rural New Mexico.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.