There are as many kinds of short stories as there are short story writers. From the half-glimpsed incident, the obliquely revealed scene, to the fully-plotted, well-constructed tale, the story can be made to do almost anything. Paul Theroux is a gifted writer, but perhaps he never quite made up his mind what he intended to do in this collection of connected stories dealing with the observations of a young American diplomat in Malaysia. Often the stories contain shrewd insights and bits of stylistic bravura, but just as often they fall flat and seem pointless. The general effect is of a work that does not quite come off, but which might have been brilliant if it had been better focused. Nevertheless, there are numerous pleasures to be found in The Consul’s File.
Stories can be created from the stimulus of dreams, emotions, reality, impressions, memories either false or true, and from the act of creation itself, but whatever the inspiration, the author must heed Ezra Pound’s advice to “make it new.” For all of the charm of Paul Theroux’s stories in The Consul’s File, they all sound familiar. Here the plot reminds one of a story read long ago, or there the tone is familiar, and yet again the characters are reminiscent of the characters of another, earlier writer. The stories are too derivative to stand on their own, although they do possess definite merits. Perhaps the basic problem with the collection is that the shadow of Somerset Maugham lurks behind it.
Paul Theroux is quite open about the fact that he is working a vein long ago opened and mined by Maugham. English and American expatriots at the “Club” in a dreary, hot Malaysian town, English snobbery and American callowness and the secretive deviousness of the natives: we’ve read about it all before. We already know the down-at-the-heels club and the seedy cafes and bars; we even have spent time at the no longer elegant Raffles hotel in Singapore. The difference, perhaps, is that Theroux likes his characters less than Maugham did. In the last story, called “Dear William,” which takes the form of a letter to someone whose life he saved in an early story, the consul takes on Somerset Maugham. What tedious eccentricity Maugham was responsible for, he claims, by making heroes of the men and women stuck in the tropics for whatever reasons. The Consul (and apparently Theroux) seems to feel that Maugham glorified these expatriots by being selective and leaving out their essential flaws. But did Maugham create a romantic lie around his characters? Anyone who is really familiar with Maugham’s short stories would have to deny that he glorified his characters. He wrote honestly and often brutally about the men and women he encountered on trips around the world. He could show compassion for a Sadie Thompson or a Reverend Davidson, but he did not hesitate to lay bare their flaws, and he could be devastating when dealing with the likes of a Leslie Crosbie. If any later men and women came to look upon Maugham’s characters as role models and tried to fit themselves into a “glamorous” conception of the expatriot as inspired by Maugham’s writing, that was not the fault of Maugham or his frequently acidic stories.
The important difference between the tales of Maugham and the brief pieces in this book is not the romantic treatment of character by Maugham as opposed to the “realistic” treatment of Theroux; rather, it is the fact that Maugham would have made real stories out of the material. Many of the stories are little more than sketches, often nicely observed, but without point or resonance. Maugham would not have let them slip through his fingers in this condition.
Here, too, Theroux seems to have tried to cover his bases by announcing in his “letter” to his friend “William” in the last story that stories have no beginning or end; they are “continuous and ragged.” He seems to be apologizing for the incomplete quality of many of the tales in the volume.
Theroux has managed to control much of the sensationalism that marred his previous fiction; strains of perversion and vice still run through many of the stories and...
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