Theroux, Paul (Vol. 11)
Theroux, Paul 1941–
Theroux is an American novelist, short story writer, travel writer, poet, and critic. His work often deals with the conflict between romantic idealism and reality, frequently in exotic settings such as Africa, Malaysia, and the Near East. Critics have generally praised the craftsmanship of his construction and his rich style while lamenting his occasionally unresolved themes and insubstantial characterizations. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
The first thing to say about [The Consul's File] is that it makes excellent reading. The stories span a wide range of mood and theme. At one extreme there is comedy—a forty-five-year-old Englishwoman blandly commandeering the title role in the local drama society's production of Suzie Wong; at the other there are revenge, rape, murder and a ghost or two. Paul Theroux appears to be equally at ease with any of these subjects. He is a natural short-story writer. Repeatedly he contrives a plot that is compact, interesting and unpredictable. His surprise endings have an organic quality: they do not trimly dispose of what has gone before, but ask the reader to reinterpret it. The narration is quick, clear and restrained; the stories are left to speak for themselves. The general standard is high but I particularly enjoyed "Pretend I'm Not Here", "Diplomatic Relations" and the deftly structured "The Autumn Dog".
The Consul's File was surely intended to add up to something a good deal more than the sum total of its parts. Names, places and institutions recur; a major character in one episode will take a minor role in another. Presumably the stories were designed to be mutually reinforcing, and to convey, cumulatively, a sense of the day-to-day life of the town. But this secondary objective is not fully achieved. Most of the tales have been previously published in magazines, and Paul Theroux does not seem to have...
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To Somerset Maugham it was the F.M.S., to Henri Fauconnier Malaisie, to myself Malaya; to the American writer Paul Theroux … it is Malaysia. It is recognizably the same place in all its nominations, and there is nowhere in the world quite like it. I wrote about it from the viewpoint of a Colonial Education Officer, Fauconnier from that of a French rubber-planter who loved the Malays and was learned in their language. Willie Maugham, who knew the country least, has unfairly effected a literary near-monopoly of it. In Theroux's new volume of stories ["The Consul's File"], narrated by a young American consul who appears in each of them, the Ayer Hitam Dramatic Society puts on an adaptation of "The Letter," and old British expatriates try to behave like Maugham eccentrics. Maugham is always around somewhere, even in the post-Vietnam age, sardonically sipping gin pahits on the club veranda, observing exilic adulteries, defiled by mold on the termite-eaten shelves of the Carnegie Library. (p. 1)
But there is also the more terrible Malaya that Maugham heard of but never saw. He merely picked up the story about a Malay woman who imparts lethal hiccups to the man who deserts her (somebody in Theroux's book picks up that story from Maugham and retails it as local folklore)….
Such tales must, to readers who don't know Malaya, sound like fanciful shockers. After my six years out there, I can only nod sagely and...
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"The war did not destroy the English—it fixed them in fatal attitudes. The Japanese were destroyed and out of that destruction came different men; only the loyalties were old—the rest was new." Thus the thirty-six-year-old New Englander Paul Theroux, pursuing his studies of the post-Imperial British, this time in Malaysia, Somerset Maugham country. The short stories in The Consul's File should be popular. How to cope, or more precisely how not to cope, with losing an empire—for an updated Somerset Maugham the subject has everything: nostalgia, pathos, irony, and (not too frequently of course, but the more tellingly) gusts of delicious guilt and right-thinking anticolonialism. Even the appropriate tone, scenario, and idiom are common stock—credits to Graham Greene. Given these advantages, an adroit practitioner like Paul Theroux could hardly go wrong. Nor does he; The Consul's File can be recommended as a thoroughly good read. And yet it is, or it ought to be, intolerably depressing….
[None] of the lives that the stories introduce us to—of Anglicized Malays and Indians, Americanized Chinese, Americans passing through, British (and the odd American) planters, doctors, and government surveyors and so on—ever escapes [a] dispiriting diagnosis of their situation as futile, insignificant, and undignified. Even the human and marital relations among them, not just the inter-racial ones either, are blighted...
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From the start, Paul Theroux's ["Picture Palace"] takes us by surprise. In the first place, it's less exotic than most of his books, which tend to be set in far-off countries and to be peopled by characters who are foreign at least in outlook, if not in fact. It lacks the snap and crackle of, say, "The Family Arsenal," his best-known novel, and draws its energy instead from internal events: the unfolding and shaking out of old memories, the slow evolution of character over years and years.
There's also the surprise of finding that "Picture Palace" is not what the first few pages lead us to expect. That is, it's not, thank heaven, one of those books about famous but bored, crotchety, eccentric old artists gracelessly enduring the young biographer/sycophants who are nibbling around the edges of their lives. It's true that Maude Coffin Pratt is a well-known photographer, and that young Frank Fusco is busy ferreting out all her old pictures for a grand retrospective; and it's true that she refers to Fusco as a "barnacle" and to the retrospective as "taxidermy." But what makes the difference is that the art, here—Maude's photography—is more than just a convenient peg to hang a plot on. In fact, "Picture Palace" is, among other things, a serious reflection on the relationship between art and the artist: what art adds to the artist's life and what it subtracts.
For Maude, photography is first a means to an end. She sees...
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It is refreshing to find a story that touches on the relationship between art and life and still manages to avoid the narcissism which so often drenches such productions, giving you the uneasy feeling that the writer is hiding behind some half-open door, peering in as you read to see if your face is registering the proper degree of respectful sympathy. Picture Palace succeeds partly because Maude's discussions of her craft seem convincingly to be about photography—there is no sense that picture snapping is some heavy-handed metaphor for fiction writing—and partly because Maude really believes in the impersonality of art—the camera is, after all, a device for recording the external world—but principally because Theroux for the most part has a very firm grasp of what he is about. What he has given us is a superbly crafted, elegantly controlled novel in which most of the booby traps this sort of story sets for a writer are evaded with an easy finesse that almost makes one forget that they were ever there.
I should hate to suggest, however, that Picture Palace is nothing more than a fictionalized discussion of what the jargon calls the "creative process"; it is also, even primarily, about a wounded life. (p. G1)
The book is not, however, without flaws. The long sequence at the beginning, in which Maude has dinner with Graham Greene, strikes one as rather pallid, and here and there in the opening...
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It was bold of Theroux to make Maude a photographer [in Picture Palace], and that she is believable as one is a remarkable feat, since artists are notoriously hard to draw. In a story of self-deception, photography is a near perfect metaphor for imperfect perception….
The plot's quite a creaky business in Picture Palace, but it hangs on a marvelously constructed and nicely realized metaphor of vision and blindness. At age eleven, snapping her first photograph, Maude suddenly cries, "I can't see!"—because her thumb is on the viewfinder. This is a tidy way of remarking that the self constantly gets in the way of vision, and throughout the book Maude's desires blind her for a time to important facts that the reader has already guessed.
Maude herself is a vigorous, rackety, memorable creation, though badly flawed. Her tenacity, cunning, and self-doubt would be quite sufficient to fuel an artist's career. Unhappily, Maude is less convincing as woman than as photographer. Even an elderly and famous woman hell-bent on eccentricity would scarcely think that critics who praised her as a credit to her sex were "calling attention to my tits, which they promptly put in the wringer of art criticism." Or berate a young man for keeping pornographic pictures of "Kenny's great hairy ass or his dripping tool." This is impossibly graphic and a bad mistake….
Still, Theroux's knowledge of photography...
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Mr. Theroux's Picture Palace examines the relationship between the personal life of an artist and the art it produces (or, as we shall see, doesn't produce). The story is told by a celebrated photographer, Maude Coffin Pratt …, who is engaged, as the sole surviving tenant of the family house on Cape Cod, in looking through her old pictures, piled in the adjacent windmill. With her is trendy Frank Fusco, who is mounting a Maude Pratt retrospective, bedizened with stereophonic sound effects. This work causes charming, ill-natured Maude to resuffer her past life….
Orlando is her brother, and her designs on him are thwarted when she finds that, having been prepared by her for incest, he chooses to commit it with her sister Phoebe instead, in the windmill. Maude witnesses and records their embrace, and then, for a term, goes blind, staying on, Agonistes, at or around the mill with these slaves of passion, her screwing siblings. For all its fast moving, this is a densely literary book.
It is also a romantic book, evoking as it does a commitment which takes two people out of the world, a commitment which Maude aims at and misses….
Orlando to the windmill—the book may be alluding to Virginia Woolf, and to the well-known seaside house and lighthouse in her fiction, so that it is surprising that she should be among the few celebrities of the period who do not put in an appearance in the book as...
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Paul Theroux's brilliant new novel ends with a startling scene. Maude Coffin Pratt, a famous American photographer, is attending the private view of a retrospective exhibition of her life's work…. With the arrival of the young man who has organised the the show, it becomes deafening. Maude realises that it is he, Frank Fusco—the toadying recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship—who is the hero of the hour. The artist herself is a mere onlooker. She remains where she always was—on the periphery.
Picture Palace is a very funny book about a very sad human being. Maude is a perpetual spectator, fated to record what she cannot experience. (pp. 275-76)
Her lens at the ready, she mingles with the mighty…. Hers is a vicarious existence, like a certain kind of novelist's—almost, one might say, like Paul Theroux's. He's a bit of an onlooker, too.
Picture Palace works splendidly on the surface, like Maude's talent. What it lacks as a work of art is what she lacks as an artist: an essential empathy. She tells us she cares, but not convincingly: she's only there when things happen. The people—the real people of fiction, as distinct from Theroux's Manns and Eliots—are shadowy, insubstantial. The novel would be better if they weren't. One wants this solitary figure to function among recognisably complex individuals, seen with something other than a camera. One would like her...
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William H. Pritchard
Paul Theroux is simply a wonder, and [Picture Palace is] a remarkable piece of work. In reviewing … The Family Arsenal … I spoke of how it (and its very fine predecessor, The Black House) each featured a desperate man endowed with great sensitivity, irony, and visionary or novelistic powers of forecast and apprehension. I also noted that both novels were consistently entertaining…. Picture Palace is even bolder and more daring than the last two, partly because its narrator … is a tough seventy-year-old photographer named Maude Coffin Pratt who is both desperately wrong about things … and righter about them than anybody else can be, the way artists are "right" about things…. The book undertakes a very complicated and satisfyingly dialectical exploration of blindness, sight, insight, vision and revision—which exploration is the equivalent to the moral and political argument of The Family Arsenal, or the anthropological and mystical one of The Black House.
An exploration, but not an argument, for one never feels after reading Theroux that one has learned something about the Nature of … of whatever. An even better word for it is "entertainment," and some of the most entertaining things about Picture Palace are the set-pieces in which Maude encounters famous modern artists—like D. H. Lawrence or T. S. Eliot or Frost or Raymond Chandler—and "does them" (play is made with...
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