(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Paul Theroux approaches his major theme—the ethical behavior of people in society—by way of the experiences of characters, many of them foreigners, in places such as postcolonial Africa and Southeast Asia, in stories that explore cultural interaction and the meaning of civilization. His three early African novels, Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers, set the scene, as it were, and suggest the terms for nearly all of his later fiction. These African novels offer not only a fictional portrait of the developing world struggling toward independence but also a metaphor for all modern society and social ethics. In the apparently simpler world of East Africa, where white expatriate confronts black African, where Chinese meets Indian meets German meets American meets Australian, Theroux explores the ways in which individuals interact to form social units and the results, often absurd, of attempts to impose foreign values and ideas of civilization on the primitive life of the jungle.

Although by the 1970’s Theroux had begun to make use of other locales in his work, the novels continue to explore the theme of civilization versus jungle, expanding in particular on the moral and ethical implications of certain kinds of social behavior. The Family Arsenal and Saint Jack provide instructive examples. In the former, Valentine Hood, an American former diplomat from Vietnam living in London, is struck by the domesticity displayed by the members of the terrorist band with which he lives: It is like a family. From this insight develop both the central theme of that novel and its plot structure. In Saint Jack, Jack Flowers creates a secular religion out of “giving people what they want.”

In a number of his novels Theroux explores the role of the artist in society. In some instances the protagonist bears striking similarities to Theroux, although it would be wrong to read these works as disguised autobiography. Frequently, as in works such as The Black House and The Mosquito Coast, Theroux separates his protagonists from society to explore the meaning of exile, foreignness, and individualism. The same can be said of later novels as well, including Kowloon Tong, in which the story of the central figure symbolizes the internal conflicts and contradictions that invariably arise between colonists and the colonized. Underlying all of these fictions, however, is found the basic assumption that every human experience, from death to redemption, from fear to loneliness, from love to murder, must be understood in a social context.

Fong and the Indians

Fong and the Indians, the first of Theroux’s African novels, is the witty tale of the business partnership between Sam Fong, a Chinese grocer, and Hassanali Fakhru, the Indian entrepreneur who rents him the store, supplies his goods, and, when business is poor, even becomes his customer. Fakhru dominates Fong’s economic life, manipulating it for his own benefit by taking advantage of Fong’s innocent incompetence as a businessman. As the plot unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the relationship between Fong and Fakhru is far from one-sided. Moreover, it also becomes clear that this association is representative of all social and economic relationships. Each individual in a society suffers limitations of understanding that arise both from his or her own prejudices and from cultural heritage. When two people meet to do business, they may well be speaking different languages, either literally or metaphorically. Misunderstandings are unavoidable, and the outcome of any action is unpredictable: Good intentions may or may not result in good consequences; the same is true of bad intentions. Chaos and absurdity reign when no one quite understands what anyone else is doing.

The plot of Fong and the Indians is an intricate comedy of errors involving Fong, the unwilling grocer; Fakhru, the capitalist swindler; and two agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on a mission to convert suspected Communists. The fiction works as both a satirical portrait of postcolonial African society and an allegory in which the grocery business, the swindles, and the “goodwill” mission—artifices of civilization—are, in the context of African reality, revealed to be absurd. In Fong and the Indians, Theroux explores “civilization”; in the later books Jungle Lovers, Girls at Play, The Black House, and The Mosquito Coast, he explores the meaning of “the jungle”—a metaphor for the world outside the comfortable First World civilization with which most of Theroux’s readers are all too familiar. At no time does Theroux become an apologist for the developing world, elevating primitive civilization over modern. Rather, he turns “jungle” into a metaphor for humanity’s natural environment: The jungle is both dangerous and nurturing; it demands that its inhabitants concentrate on basic human needs. Although the metaphor is most easily understood when Theroux sets his story in the literal jungle of Africa or Central America, there is “jungle” too in South London, in an English village, even in Florida, Chicago, Hong Kong, or Hawaii.

In Fong and the Indians, Fakhru swindles Sam Fong by convincing him that canned milk represents a victory of civilization. In Africa, however, canned milk makes no sense. Africans do not need it, and Europeans prefer the fresh milk from Nairobi. Fong’s only hope of becoming rich rests on the wild improbability that the milk train will one day be wrecked. Aware of the absurdity, Fong accepts both the hope and the improbability of its fulfillment. Fong triumphs because he learns to love what he does not understand. He has the patience to submit, to accommodate his life to the requirements of survival. His change of diet, from the traditional Chinese cuisine he has maintained for all his thirty-seven years in Africa to a free, native one based on bananas and fried locusts, is at once a measure of his economic decline and an assurance of his ultimate triumph.

Saint Jack

A reader’s first impression is liable to be that Theroux’s ethic is based on the virtue of inaction. Because human understanding is limited, all events appear ambiguous. Even innocently motivated attempts to improve the lot of humanity may prove unexpectedly destructive, such as Marais’s attempt to bring revolutionary ideals to Malawi in Jungle Lovers, Valentine Hood’s murder to rid the world of Ron Weech in The Family Arsenal, or even Maud Coffin Pratt’s photographs of the pig feast and of her brother and sister in the mill in Picture Palace. Because all events are ambiguous, it is impossible to predict which actions will prove evil and which will prove good. Therefore, the only possible moral strategy is to take no action at all, to be patient and accommodate oneself to the unknowable mystery of the jungle.

Inaction, however, should not be confused with selfish laziness; rather, it is an active, morally motivated inaction akin to the traditional Christian virtue of patience. Patience redeems the absurdity of the modern world, protecting humankind from despair and leading ultimately to a triumph of innocence and virtue that will in turn redeem society. This is the lesson of Saint Jack.

A middle-aged, balding, American expatriate, muddled, afraid, and lonely, Jack Flowers jumps ship in Singapore. A stranger and a misfit, Jack sees no hope of rescue; he does not believe in miracles. He is a modern man making a realistic appraisal of his chances in an unfriendly and dangerous world. Yet Jack wrests from this vision of despair an ad-lib ethic based on fulfilling the desires of others. He becomes what others would have him be. Condemning no one, pardoning all, Jack participates in each person’s unique fantasy. In the public world, he is called a pimp—he may even be a spy—but in his own private world, Jack is a saint, thoroughly reliable and incapable of cultural misunderstanding. He gives to each what everyone needs—pleasure, security, and forgiveness—and stands ready with whatever else is required to meet even an unexpected desire, be it pornographic pictures, the kind attentions of a good girl, or a game of squash. Jack shapes his own needs to match his companion’s—he is the perfect friend and protector.

Jack’s tattooed arms, emblazoned with Chinese obscenities and curses disguised as flowers, symbolize the way he eases the pain of human loneliness and fear by providing an illusion of hope and friendship and the reality of a temporary pleasure taken in safety. Pity, compassion, and a stubbornly innocent vision of human needs save Jack himself from doing evil and redeem the actions of all those he takes care of, even General Maddox himself.

The terms of this novel are coyly religious—Saint Jack, the manager of Paradise Gardens—but God is not really present in Singapore. What might in a Christian fiction be termed grace is here good luck, and even Jack’s redeeming power itself results, in the end, from his own fantasy. The effect is, on the one hand, tongue in cheek, and on the other, quite serious. Theroux appears to be walking the delicate line between a modern recognition that, in this absurd world, good and evil are meaningless categories and a commonsense realization that people need moral categories and at least an illusion of meaning in order to survive relatively sane.

The Family Arsenal

The search for meaning and moral categories provides both the theme and the structure of The Family Arsenal. When the story opens, Valentine Hood has come to live with a group of unrelated people in South London. Their domesticity makes them a parody of the typical middle-class family: Mayo, the mother, a...

(The entire section is 4059 words.)