Paul Theroux Essay - Theroux, Paul (Vol. 5)

Theroux, Paul (Vol. 5)

Theroux, Paul 1941–

Theroux, an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and poet, has travelled and lived abroad—primarily in England and equatorial lands—for the last decade. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

"Sinning With Annie and Other Stories" is a finely written [short story] collection about the come-uppance of the mildly ruthless, those nasties who abuse people to get what they want only to find no joy in their prize…. For their nastiness always breeds guilt, and the fight for their great goody always leaves them sickish. Their success is muted by remorse; their remorse is dampened by the impulse to do it again. Theroux's talent is for this middle grayness, for the mellowest anxiety and the thinnest vibrations of evil….

Theroux is a master of trimmers, those neither-here-nor-there sorts who cannot feel happy, but who are not too miserable either. He writes with elegance of the wry, the rueful, the nagging complaints of middle grayness and middle confusion. And he is so successful that his stories have only a middling force. (p. 4)

Josephine Hendin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972.

In a picaresque novel [Saint Jack] laid in Singapore and having an irresistible rogue as hero, Mr. Theroux maintains the dizzying pace he has set for himself as a new novelist, displaying here an elaborate knowledge of Oriental palaces of sin operating in the very heart of the mysterious if not entirely inscrutable East. As an author he shows much ingenuity in writing about sex as a divertissement quite unrelated to love, unemotionally, as a virtual vocation for beachcombers otherwise gifted with a quick-witted ability to survive in an alien world. (p. viii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974).

It is a tribute to Paul Theroux's energy and industry that at the age of 33 he has produced seven books of fiction. Moreover, it is a tribute to his integrity and ambition that he is not content to keep repeating himself. But unfortunately his new novel, "The Black House," an abrupt departure from the comic vision of his earlier work, does a serious disservice to his talent and will likely disappoint those who enjoyed "Jungle Lovers" and "Saint Jack."

The book might best be described as a hybrid composed of unequal parts of social satire, commentary on colonialism, anthropological insights, some randy sex and an inconclusive gothic tale. In the author's mind there must have been a theme or thread that linked these disparate elements, but if so, Mr. Theroux has deleted the unifying substance from the final version, which is held together by nothing except the thinnest integument of prose. (p. 18)

After each event the reader thinks things will implode and form a pattern that permits deeper, or at least broader, understanding. But nothing is hot or bright enough to burn away the haze that hides Mr. Theroux's intentions, nothing is powerful enough to overcome the inertia of the narrative. And the story stands still, the style grows attentuated, mainly because Munday [the protagonist] has a tendency to analyze the least significant actions and to repeat and italicize his ideas. Since he is a scholar this may be believable, but it doesn't make for interesting reading since his mind is neither remarkable nor particularly appealing—he's petty, pedantic, squeamish and often appallingly cold and unkind….

Granting credit where it's due, it appears that Paul Theroux is searching for new material and perhaps a method of pushing beyond the conventional—even if successful—limits of his previous work. He hasn't found it here, yet he can't be faulted for trying. Much as one might wish he hadn't published "The Black House," he has earned the right to make such mistakes without losing the respect and patience of readers who care about fiction. (p. 20)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 8, 1974.

Paul Theroux is a young novelist who writes with uncommon assurance and grace. His last effort, Saint Jack, told of an American drifter in Singapore, a pimp wallowing among the local flora, who brought his own story to its mildly upbeat conclusion by forfeiting a lot of money to help a fellow lost soul. Highly praised in this country, it seemed to me an energetic but not very satisfactory picaresque jab. Yet the prose, quick, lucid and continually gazing over the brink of events, appeared ready for anything. The Black House is perhaps a recasting of old virtues: Theroux's execution is lively once again, whereas his conception is just a little dim. All the same he has a smart thriller-like plot to dally with, and the result to my mind is a marked invigoration of his talent….

The Black House seems to have been influenced a good deal by Iris Murdoch's fiction, especially The Bell. Yet the influence, if I may say so, creates a happy effect precisely because it has been absorbed quite thoroughly. (p. 2)

David Bromwich, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 15, 1974.

It takes courage for a writer to abandon a tone of voice which he has mastered and attempt something completely different; but it is the sort of courage a serious writer needs. Paul Theroux started publishing novels in 1967 and has produced a series of brilliant and much-praised books each of which, though more than funny, was without doubt very funny indeed. The Black House marks a departure from this series: any jokes lurking in the narrative are of a depressed and bitter kind, jokes involving disappointment, betrayal of friends, disgust with the way things are. This may be partly because the hero is neither a young man nor even—as Theroux's last hero, 'Saint Jack' was—a middle-aged man able to comfort himself with fantasy. Sickness, sourness and despair afflict Alfred Munday, an anthropologist forced into early retirement away from a sunny African location and 'his' people, the Bwamba, into the damp Dorset village his wife Emma has hankered after.

In part, then, it is a novel about the expatriate condition, a condition Theroux is in a good position to explicate; he has lived and set novels in Africa and Singapore since leaving his native America, and is now himself settled in England. He has to an unusual degree the qualities a travelling writer needs if he is to be more than a travel writer: he can soak up atmosphere as quickly and thoroughly as a sponge, and he does not intrude his own personality. His English village, its flora and fauna, topography and moods, indoor and out, are here as sharply outlined as any of his earlier exotic settings. Anyone who has been an interloper in an English village—and it's the commonest way of experiencing country life today—will recognise the accuracy of the descriptions. Pleasure has to be found in cold, rain and early darkness ('it never gets this dark in London', as one baffled visitor points out); there is a good deal of slyness, social unease, bonhomie that cracks quickly. Munday's views on Africa, delivered at the village hall, do not help him along any more than his bad temper when he is baited at the pub by the villagers or condescended to by the squire over sherry….

'I sometimes feel I could have discovered all I needed to know about isolation and perhaps even tribalism right here … and witchcraft of a sort,' says Munday at one point; the parallel between the African village community and the English one is never far from his mind. And in fact he is caught up in some English witchcraft, a haunting providing the other strand to the plot. Sinister and erotic, this is the most technically adventurous part of the narrative, and it put me in mind of a Henry James ghost story; only there the sexual element is never allowed to surface, whereas here it is not only explicit but insistent.

There is perhaps a tremor of uncertainty at the end of the book. Munday reaches some resolution whose value is not quite made clear; and he himself grows shadowy at times, more possessed by his ghost (one feels) than in possession of himself. But then the book is about a man panicked by doubts about just where he and other creatures do belong. The degree of skill with which Theroux handles these various themes, and the level mastery of his writing, have produced a novel of unusual scope and promise still more for the future.

Claire Tomalin, "Out of Africa," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 4, 1974, p. 475.

Mr Theroux … is an intelligent writer who manages to use his intelligence without jokiness or self-aggrandisement. [In "The Black House,"] Alfred and Emma Munday have returned from that romantic haven, 'darkest' Africa, to an English countryside which is no less dark and considerably more hostile. Their new home, the "Black House" of the title, gleams like wet coal and will not let them alone…. A series of small but ominous events gather their own momentum and the narrative reaches a point of almost visible darkness. It is all very [neatly] done, and the novel arranges itself into patterns almost as deliberate as those of Theroux's ideal landscape: the language is ordered, the theme is settled. "But it was frozen, the green looked infertile, threatening to die and discolor for the winter."

Some obvious analogy might be made here with Africa's rather more fertile chaos, but it is the book itself which must bear the strain of comparison. For it, too, is threatening to fade away precisely when Mr Theroux lavishes the most care and intelligence upon it. The initial gathering of moods and moments, so cleverly suggesting menace, is dissolved by what appears to be a wilful spending of Theroux's powers; his sure line in characterisation, his wit and his ear for dialogue become the substance rather than the shadow of the novel, and the scene is clouded by lightweights and leit-motifs. The power is undoubtedly there, if only Mr Theroux would keep a firmer hold upon it. (p. 471)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 12, 1974.

Connoisseurs of ghost stories know that the very best are often least encumbered by supernatural paraphernalia; the ghost's existence may even be problematical, perhaps no more than the neurotic projection of the story's protagonist. So it is here [in The Black House]….

Theroux emphasizes the realistic details of English country life and keeps us interested in the fate of the thoroughly unpleasant [protagonist]. And (as if he had not assumed enough technical problems) he has abandoned the wit that graced his earlier novels, replacing it with a tone of anxiety and anticipation. (p. 116)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.

[While] I think The Black House is mostly a mistake, I also found it very impressive, the work of a real novelist writing with real authority, someone who from the first page is intent on the serious business of other people's lives. The story is … a reverse "Heart of Darkness": an English anthropologist, after ten years of studying an isolated African tribe, returns home and discovers in an English village in Dorset the same village as the one he left, an isolated tribal world of suspicion, acrimony, and suppressed violence. Theroux creates the English countryside slowly and very well indeed…. Furthermore, there is a chapter describing a day the Mundays have in London, mostly seeing sad and corrupted old African acquaintances, that is a little masterpiece as well as a full warning to the Mundays that the heart of England is indeed dark.

But the wages of homelessness are mutedness, suspicion, and ineffectuality, so the Mundays themselves are unpleasant folk to have around, and Theroux feels he has to have at least a ghost story to expose Munday to himself. Parts of the ensuing psychodrama are very exciting, but the story seems only partly to understand itself, and at the same time it leads Theroux away from his original desire to establish the Dorset village alongside the remembered African one. There is less need here to say precisely what it is that doesn't work than to say that the total effect is indeed murky and unsatisfactory—but there is less need to insist on that than to repeat that Paul Theroux, whatever the tangles he has gotten himself into here, is a real writer, full of achievement even in this unachieved novel, full of promise. (pp. 630-31)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by the Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.