The Family Arsenal
Those principal characters listed above comprise only one of the “families” that Paul Theroux has used to structure The Family Arsenal, a political thriller with justifiably higher literary ambitions. There is another family, more loosely aligned, made up of a half-dozen or so other characters Theroux has drawn to season his story: the bowler-hatted Mr. Gawber, revenue department accountant and Milquetoast-cum-Avenging Angel; Lady Arrowood, a statuesque, bisexual noblewoman with a proclivity for the bizarre in all things; and the Jane Fonda-like rabblerouser, Araba Nightwing, whose coterie of actor-radical friends constitutes still another subfamily within The Family Arsenal.
The sprawling city of London is a character, in a sense, and a family as well. It is the “unreal city” of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where the “river sweats oil and tar” along the squalid Thameside quarter known as Deptford, where much of this novel takes place. The London “family” Theroux depicts is not the conventional assemblage of pomp and tradition personified that the tourist sees; rather it is, again as in “The Waste Land,” the less picturesque London of fog and grime with “each man fixed, his eyes before his feet.”. . . In the slow fire of the late afternoon the tall granite spires had the look of old daggers. Then to the right, past the far off bulb of the Post Office Tower, a matchstick in metal; past a row of riverside warehouses the sun had gutted and more burnt spires . . ., the power station pouring a muscle of smoke into the sky, a crane poised dangerously like an ember about to snap, housetops shedding flames . . ., the ditch at the end of the crescent where the trains ran.
To be sure, the gritty, hazy guerrilla-infested jungle that is Theroux’s London in this novel is, as one or another of his characters is constantly telling us, “a family affair.”
The novel’s central character, Valentine Hood, is an American, a minor diplomatic official who has recently been dismissed for corruption perpetrated during his tenure at the United States Embassy in Saigon. Hood has come to London, not so much to build a new life, but to escape the old one. He is marking time, laying back; but he is drawn, almost inexorably (of course), into the machinations devised by the seedy IRA-related terrorists who people his lately found refuge.
In an opening scene, Hood stares vacantly from his apartment window and watches a man being humiliated in front of his young child by a huge bully. Restless and vaguely keyed up, Hood decides to follow the bully.He longed to act. To abandon this chase would be an evasion of his strength. He craved the kind of blame that would release him honorably from the charge of inaction, a guilt like grace. He was in the mood for a scrap. . . . Just once, to take sides, to settle the sort of unfair fight a million men ignored every day....
(The entire section is 1195 words.)