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Mad About Hue : Alexander Theroux's eccentric, elegant essays will make you wonder why you ever took colors for granted. : THE PRIMARY COLORS: Three Essays, By Alexander Theroux (Henry Holt: $17.95; 268 pp.)

August 28, 1994|Peter Rainer | Peter Rainer is a Times film critic and chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. He is the editor of "Love and Hisses" (Mercury House), a collection of movie essays

"It is strange how deeply colors seem to penetrate one, like scent."

This quote from "Middlemarch"--the frontispiece to Alexander Theroux's "The Primary Colors"--is the most apt of intros for this playfully profound, one-of-a-kind book. Theroux's lengthy essays on blue, yellow and red--one essay per color--seem to spring from an almost pagan worship of everything that color can inspire in us. Reading the book can be a heady, intoxicating experience--you have to put it down every 10 pages or so and take a deep breath--because Theroux gives his words the same tactile, almost talismanic shimmer as the colors he invokes.

The invocation draws on personal memories and literary anecdotes, fragments of art history, military history, politics, movie references, archeological tidbits, gossip, poetry, prejudices, scientific arcana, sporting lore. It draws on just about everything, promiscuously.

Theroux's style is a puzzlement: Discursive and singsong, yet ferociously driven. There's real propulsion to his free-associative japes and apercus. He probably could have continued adding association to association forever but he knows when to draw the curtain on his three acts. This is no rambling, dolled-up database of a book, no mere cataloguing of caprice. It's something far stranger than that--despite its surface calm it's almost a mad book. For Theroux, there's something anthropomorphic about color; color has its own life in a way that's powerfully unsettling and sensual. His feeling for the primary colors (for all color, really) is so piercingly intimate that it's creepy. He makes us feel pretty stupid for looking at, say, the color blue in our everyday lives and seeing . . . the color blue.

When Theroux looks at the primary colors he sees an entire latticework of connections. (His book is a mansion of filaments.) Here is Theroux on 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 Aborigines. Easter is yellow, so is Spring, and much of the beauty of autumn. It is redolent of old horn, dead coins, southernwood, and the generous sun. . . ."

This is more than a checklist: It's practically an incantation. Theroux has written novels and poetry, and there's a novelist's ardor for the precise detail in these words, as well as a poet's unblinkered eye ("the cheeks of a penguin"). His perceptions call up overwhelming emotions for us because he recognizes how color and feeling are twinned. Colors are our madeleines. Theroux doesn't really create new emotions in us; he connects us to our own private emulsion of mood and memory. He makes us register images we never thought we knew ("the cheeks of a penguin"). We don't necessarily make the same connections he does but we can recognize his passion for getting it all out. It's a passion that goes beyond will, as if he were a medium for a torrent of imagery that, finally, has its own wild, whorled life.

This may explain why "The Primary Colors," while it may seem to be a species of personal memoir, is also an oddly distanced book. We don't feel we really "know" Theroux after we've read it, and that may be part of his magician's act. Now you see him, now you don't. The book is both intimate and imperial. It's something of a tease. He brings us very close to the root of his mood: He writes how the snowfall was blue the day he was engaged to be married; of a blue bistro he remembers in Montparnasse. But he also talks--in virtually the same breath--of how hallucinations on mescaline are supposed to be blue, how blue is not mentioned in the Bible, how a blue spot (which gradually disappears) can be found on the lower back of newborn Asian babies. There's something closed-off about Theroux's openness. Perhaps it's because he's employing his own life as a kind of poetic conceit. His fantasias are experienced on the same level as his privacies.

Theroux doesn't have a generalizing mind; he's not trying for a Unified Color Field Theory. Even though his book deals with primary colors--colors that can't be made by mixing other colors together and from which nearly all other colors are mixed--he understands that a color can be too pure. He prefers a mongrelization of tones in his primary hues; it suits his poetic mongrel style. Impurity brings out the portraitist in him. He quotes an L. E. Sissman poem that begins, "My mother, with a skin of crepe de Chine/ Predominantly yellow-colored, sheer/ Enough to let the venous blue show through. . . ." He cites Melville on Queequeg's face in "Moby-Dick," "of a dark, purplish yellow color, here and there struck over with large, blackish squares." (Theroux has a great instinct for the unfamiliar quotation from the familiar writer.)

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