In Blinding Light, author Paul Theroux combines three recurring interests which have distinguished his work for decades: travel, sex, and the nature of creativity. Theroux’s experience as a travel writer is evident in his twenty-sixth novel. The work is filled with vivid descriptions of such lush hideaways as the jungles of Ecuador and the Massachusetts resort community at Martha’s Vineyard. His facility for description carries over, too, in the graphic depictions of sexual activity which highlight pleasure without exploring its moral dimensions. Nevertheless, Blinding Light is more than simply another attempt by a prolific writer to top the best-seller lists. Like many novels written during the postmodern period, Blinding Light is about self-consciousness and the nature of the creative process. Theroux deals with large questions: What does it mean to have imagination? What is the nature of the artist’s vision of reality? What is the cost to the artist for producing his work? What makes this novel different from many that deal with these same issues, however, is Theroux’s interesting and provocative narrative, which obliquely asks and answers these questions in a story that, despite its comic overtones, is a tragedy.
Theroux’s hero, Slade Steadman, is a middle-aged writer who has lived for nearly two decades on the proceeds of a highly successful travel book titled Trespassing. Written when he was a young man, the book has remained widely popular, and licensing rights for television and various forms of logo merchandise have made Steadman rich. In the years immediately following the publication of Trespassing, he had enjoyed celebrity status, but unfortunately for him, he had never been able to write another book. Now fifty and living the life of a recluse, Steadman decides to travel incognito to Ecuador to seek out a group of shamans who are said to possess powerful, consciousness-enhancing drugs. Traveling with Steadman is his longtime companion Dr. Ava Katsina. Also along for the experience are four rich American tourists, for whom the trip is but one more adventure fraught with inconvenience and poor accommodations. Rounding out the group is Manfred Steiger, a German journalist who is not exactly forthcoming in describing his reasons for being on the journey. Ironically, while the four Americans carry “Trespassing” travel gear and use Steadman’s book as a kind of guide for their journey, they do not realize that they are traveling with the author of the famous travelogue. Only Steiger recognizes Steadman, and a testy relationship develops between the two men. Steadman takes pleasure in ridiculing the German, calling him a Nazi and poking fun at his antisocial tendencies.
After a lengthy boat ride into the heart of the jungle, Steadman and others in the group partake of the drug they had come to sample. The advertised drug proves less potent than Steadman had anticipated, but Steiger tells him of another, more powerful substance, datura, which may be available from the Ecuadorians. Steadman agrees eagerly to try some. In a ritual resembling a voodoo ceremony, he imbibes the liquid containing the potent hallucinogen, and the experience is life-transforming. Made temporarily blind, he experiences a searing light inside his brain which illuminates his past and allows him to see into the future. Instantly addicted, he sets out to purchase a supply of the plant containing the drug. Unable to convince the shamans to sell it to him, he is almost ready to give up when Steiger appears with a curious basket woven from the dried plant from which the miraculous datura is made. After he purchases the basket from Steiger, however, Steadman continues to humiliate him, eventually accusing him of stealing from the group. The two men depart Ecuador on bad terms.
When Steadman and Katsina return to his estate on Martha’s Vineyard, Katsina becomes the writer’s caretaker and amanuensis, forgoing her own medical career to tend him during his spells of blindness and transcribe the novel he begins to write. The rich and famous inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard find Steadman to be a curiosity. He is invited to various social functions, and women repeatedly come on to him. Steadman astounds people by sensing their...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)