Paul Theroux Theroux, Paul (Vol. 8) - Essay

Theroux, Paul (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Theroux, Paul 1941–

Theroux is an American novelist, poet, short story writer, critic, and travel writer. His work is wonderfully evocative of place, a quality no doubt enhanced by his observations during his many and frequent travels. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

One of the most interesting of younger American writers is Paul Theroux, whose novels Girls at Play and Saint Jack were well-received by critics in both the United States and England. If he is not so well-known among general readers as he is among critics, and his fellow-writers, it may be partly because his fiction is located outside the territorial boundaries of the United States—in the Far East, in Russia, in Africa, and in England. The Black House is a mysterious work: it is ostensibly set in a small English village in the Dorset country side, and at the same time it is set—psychologically—in Uganda, in an isolated Bwamba village, where the novel's protagonist, an anthropologist named Alfred Munday, lived for a long period of time, researching the Bwamba people…. The novel does not yield its meanings easily; its "plot" is at times rather baffling. But Theroux's ability to contrast cultures and to focus upon the bizarre similarities between them is as powerful in this novel as it was in his earlier, more realistic works. (p. 102)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1974 by The Ontario Review), Fall, 1974.

Though it is a travel book and not a novel, ["The Great Railway Bazaar"] incorporates many of the qualities of Theroux's fiction: it is funny, sardonic, wonderfully sensuous and evocative in its descriptions, casually horrifying in its impact….

Though he is a certified American, born in Medford, Mass.,… Paul Theroux has … staked out for himself a fictional terrain that is generally thought of as British. He writes about the anomalies of post-imperial life in central Africa ("Jungle Lovers"—1971), where he spent five years, in Singapore ("Saint Jack"—1973), where he spent another three, and in England itself, where he presently lives. Unafraid of ethnic generalizations, he spares no one—African, Englishman, Chinaman, Indian, American—in his wildly absurd confrontations between the old and the new exploiters and the poor bastards caught in the middle; recklessly he juxtaposes the crumbling institutions of colonialism with some of the more bizarre outgrowths of the Third World…. If Theroux sees mainly decay, sloganism and impoverishment in the present, he is also mercilessly aware of the racial blindness, the stupidity, the arrogance and cruelty of the colonial past.

Another element in Theroux's work that is more typically British than American is his comic celebration of seediness. The suits his characters wear tend to be ill-fitting, stained with gravy or curry or beer. As Calvin Mullet, the former insurance agent from Hudson, Mass., muses in "Jungle Lovers," "there was something cozy and familiar in an undershirt that had been worn for a week or two." Jack Flowers, the tattooed American pimp-protagonist of "Saint Jack," dressed for a special occasion in his best black suit and a white shirt, discovers, in the lounge of an expensive Singapore hotel, that he has forgotten to put on socks. The characters eat revolting meals. They booze away their days in sordid bars, sleep with whores or native girls in unmade beds in dirty rooms. Although this seediness proliferates most luxuriantly in the steamy tropics, "The Black House" (1974) reveals its existence (no longer comic) in England too. In "The Black House," his most impressive novel yet, Theroux seems almost defiantly to be claiming his authorial right to an especially British genre: the macabre tale of a haunted house, of witchcraft in a remote village in Dorset. The break with his earlier work is not as complete as this sounds, for the chief character of the book is an anthropologist who for 10 years has studied the inhabitants of a Ugandan village which turns out, in surprising ways, to be the counterpart of the one in Dorset. There is not a single American character in the novel….

"The Great Railway Bazaar" also belongs to an English tradition, that of the eccentric travel book whose origins go back two centuries to Sterne's "A Sentimental Journey." For no better reason than to counter a sneering question as to whether he has been to France, Sterne's Mr. Yorick hastily packs a half-dozen shirts and a pair of black silk breeches and sets off for the Dover-Calais packet-boat; just as whimsically Paul Theroux kisses his wife good-by and sets off on a three-month parabolic trip around Asia because he likes trains. (p. 1)

The traveling persona adopted by Theroux is acerbic, bookish, deadpan, observant, bibulous and rather passive….

There is a lot of … pleasant fooling-around, but as it does in Theroux's novels, horror has a way of suddenly ripping the comic mask….

The author's deadpan narrative manner can usually be counted on to keep his indignation under control, but the rape of Vietnam—visited during the eerie period between the "Cease-fire" and this spring's capitulation—is too much for him….

Paul Theroux is such a well-read and extravagantly well-informed writer that it is fun to catch him out on small [factual errors]…. But these very lapses indicate the quality of Theroux's sensibility. "The Great Railway Bazaar" is the most consistently entertaining and the least boring book I have encountered in a long time. (p. 2)

Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 24, 1975.

Paul Theroux is a train-lover, though not one of those who dote only on puff-puffs on the branch line to Little Gidding. He wanted to suffer on those long bazaars or ramshackle supermarkets that snake along from one desperate frontier to another, eastward across Europe into the smells of Asia, hauling alleged sleeping cars and imaginary diners. (p. 474)

[In] its dereliction, the railway offers what up-to-date forms of travel cut us off from: passengers. There is an instant meeting with the desperate, anxious, boasting, confessional, jabbering hopefuls and casualties of the modern world. We are not palmed off with national customs and crafts, public problems: we see private life as it screams at this very hour, sweating out the universal anxiety, the conglomerate Absurd. This is what Paul Theroux, with the eyes and ears of the novelist and the avidity of the responsive traveller, brings home to us [in The Great Railway Bazaar], awaking us to horror, laughter, compassion at the sight of the shameless private will to live. His book is the most vigorous piece of travel among people I have read for years. (pp. 474-75)

He has Dickens's gift for getting the character of a man or woman in a flash, of discovering the fantasies and language of the food-stained bores who settled upon him. We understand why poor old Mr Duffill, who treads on the cuffs of his trousers at Victoria, smells of bread crusts and travels with paper parcels, will get left behind at the Italian frontier—not so much from incompetence but because he is fated to have fits of sensibility when a train moves off as he gesticulates with his sandwiches.

The Victorian enemies of railway travel used to warn us that we would find ourselves close to the breath and bodies of people we had not met socially: Mr Theroux leaned eagerly and philosophically towards them….

Mr Theroux is brief and vivid on the view from the window. He is especially fine on the mixture of magnificence and abandoned ironmongery in Laos. His generalised grasp of cities is always to the contemporary point. (p. 475)

The whole book is more than a rich and original entertainment. His people, places and asides will stay a long time jostling in the mind of the reader. (p. 476)

V. S. Pritchett, "On the Tracks," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 17, 1975, pp. 474-76.

While exile is undeniably a ticket to miseries it does carry advantages. Not only does it give home a sharper perspective than the stick-theres possess but—bigger boon still—it frequently helps you focus the new place clearer than the locals. That's why so many good novels about London are written by foreigners … [like] Paul Theroux. And, as all these novelists prove, it's frequently the sleazier undersides of London life that the newcomer is drawn to, perhaps because, as Orwell suggested of Henry Miller in Paris, he lacks a steady milieu and family roots, and so is driven to haunt the fringes of settled respectability—bars and dives, crummy rented accommodation, areas like Deptford.

The thickly textured prose of Paul Theroux's The Family Arsenal marvellously gives us this seedy world of the transient—where the ageing accountant Gawber, who's stuck it out in Catford, is engulfed in tides of less-than-colourful coloured immigrés, and an American consul on the run is holing up in a Deptford pad with a nursery of Provo kiddies and their bomb-kits, and gun-runners, nickers of tellies, middle-class stealers of paintings for ransom, radical actresses and anarchist aristocrats are tumbled together in a richly criminal brew…. Theroux also knows that exiles … and hoodlums, and for that matter novels, run to surrogates for families….

[Everyone] turns out to be related to everyone else, including their enemies. All one big unhappy urban family. Even the ordinary inhabitant of the fated urbs is netted into the catch of relationships, if only through the crossed telephone connections Gawber keeps getting. And the whole uneasy shebang, so resourcefully ravelled and unravelled, ends with a suitable doomy bang. The remnants of Hood's 'family' split to Brighton (there no doubt to rewrite Graham Greene)….

Fong and the Indians isn't only valuable as a nice reminder that a prose style and structuring capacities can improve in just the merest while; it does have its own mild attractions…. Unheavy-handedly, the novel satirises the idiocies of African politics, the lunacies of the foreign interferers, the mendacities of the commercially uppity Indians. Things do move a mite woodenly at times, but Paul Theroux can also organise some tellingly bizarre and funny, if in the end quite frightening, international misunderstandings. You laugh, as does the novel, to stop yourself crying: for even the last-minute arrival of Fong's dreamed-of-gravy—well, milk—train seems little compensation for all he's been forced through. (p. 410)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 26, 1976.

Narrative verve, the brightly sketched collection of urban desperadoes, and the extraordinary vividness of physical London will make "The Family Arsenal" a deservedly popular novel. For an American, Theroux has a remarkable ear for the rhythms and elisions of English underworld slang, and he even manages at this late date to make obscenity expressive. No foreign writer I've read has so skillfully caught the blend of coarseness, provincialism and bigotry that is one distinctive (and usually unexportable) brand of popular British humor.

In all these respects, "The Family Arsenal" is an assured success, like Theroux's fine travel book of last year, "The Great Railway Bazaar"; but Theroux has ambitions that go beyond the expert construction of a timely thriller. Opening with an epigraph from "The Princess Casamassima" and alluding a dozen times to "The Secret Agent," he wants much of what happens in "The Family Arsenal" to play off against the two famous novels by James and Conrad that have shaped the way many people think about the anarchist impulse. (p. 1)

The allusiveness and direct imitation create some fine incidental comedy, and taken together they also gradually reinforce several of Theroux's larger themes. In London of the 1970's, terrorism seems more inevitable, degenerate and futile than it did even in the 1880's and 90's. The establishment enemy is vague, seen mainly through the crazed egotism or drug-sodden fantasies of the conspirators. Protest itself often takes the form of sporadic, vaguely motivated bursts of violence—desperate play divorced from any clear principle or belief.

One of Theroux's best scenes is a shivery demonstration of terrorism as mindless pleasure, when goofy adolescents giggle about the dynamite needed to bring down Nelson's column or the Admiralty Arch: "It was the only way they could possess the city, by reducing it to shattered pieces. Exploded, in motion, it was theirs." Santayana's warning that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it has a particularly sharp ring. Never having heard of James or Conrad [the bomb-makers] cannot know they are actors in a failed plot written decades before they were born. (pp. 1-2)

These ironies work well for Theroux, but they also have the effect of continually diminishing his characters and the significance of their actions. In "The Princess Casamassima" and "The Secret Agent" terrorism is futile too, but its impulses and targets are more fully communicated, the implications and emotional effects of its failure more resonant. James and Conrad create worlds elsewhere: what used to be, what may now still exist or what could possibly occur in the future. Theroux obviously knows all this well enough—diminishment is a vital theme of his novel—but it does create problems that he can only partially solve. Most of his characters are so thoroughly reduced—isolated, aimless, inarticulate, mindlessly desperate—that it is hard to see them as more than grimly (often comically) exposed. For all of his craft and intelligence, Theroux is better at documenting destruction than at convincing us that things of significance and value have been lost….

Theroux's efforts to provide by implication an analysis of a historical situation and an ample sense of personal motivation are finally less successful than his handling of narrative excitement, satiric portraiture and the evocation of urban violence and distress. To ask for more power and analysis from an intelligent, absorbing thriller is not to debunk Theroux's achievement (or to grumble that he doesn't stack up against Conrad and James), but to suggest some of the critical issues raised by his work and the promises it holds out. (p. 2)

Lawrence Graver, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1976.

[In The Family Arsenal], Theroux is writing … about terrorists, would-be terrorists and all sorts of mock revolutionists against the background of England in decay. He has worked up his material like a documentary journalist with more knowledge than empathy. The book is full of wild goings-on and hideously empty people who seem straight out of Graham Greene rather than Theroux's professed desire to carry on (a bit) with James' The Princess Casamassima and Conrad's The Secret Agent….

I didn't believe any of it; Theroux's style is so self-conscious and the English scene is worked up with such labor. But the book is certainly complicated, dense, ominous. Why is American fiction this complicated now, why does the style come on so portentously? My guess is that the human figure that dominates us is still that old American problem, the self-enclosed psyche. (p. 23)

Alfred Kazin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.) November 27, 1976.

[In The Family Arsenal Theroux] communicates the significance of his London setting not by anxious directives but by feeling, through Lawrence's "spirit of place." On the one hand, we are overwhelmed by the grimy facticity of South London—terraces of houses, slogans chalked on walls, slashed railway seats, pubs, cemeteries, fog, docks—but the physical details become transparent, recreating through the reader's apprehension of emotional nuance or concentration a vision of London, seemingly venerable, cultured, a guardian of trust and order, as a focus of the anarchy and contingency of the contemporary psyche. London imperceptibly is transformed into Vietnam and experiencing Vietnam—as Americans, including Valentine Hood, know—is a condition of being contemporary. Violence—murder, hot-wiring, theft, mugging, explosions—are as easy, alluring and arbitrary as in Vietnam and in both, men are escapees, exiles, conspirators, actors, and barbarians. The atmosphere of the novel is thus surely but subtly established. Its ongoing structure is equally firmly rooted in the reader's responses by a series of interconnected symbols: a stolen picture which seems to reflect the viewer's moods, amusingly crossed telephone conversations about The Times crosswords which underline the confused clues of the mystery in the wider world, and the theater people who intertwine confusingly with radical political groups and revolutionaries. Theater, disguise, symbolic actions, link actors and conspirators alike; acting, like violence, is a gesture of defiant liberation.

Overhanging the novel's action is a London not only frighteningly collaged with Vietnam but an image of the decay and unpredictable destructiveness of the past. The city is "great" and "fantastic" to the young Provos simply and fearfully because it is such a tempting target: "it was the only way they could possess the city, by reducing it to shattered pieces," just as Hood's compatriots have ravaged Vietnam. The "arsenal" of the title is at once the name of a football team and of Hood's small group of variously "displaced" revolutionaries in South London where he is "continuing the journey he had started abruptly in Vietnam." The only hope in such a world where history and external order have failed the resources and desires of the individual is Hood's reluctantly growing love for a woman whose husband he has himself pursued and killed. At the book's conclusion the "family" has been shattered and the survivors—Hood, the woman and her child, and one of Hood's young protégés—escape to Brighton, still a family of sorts, their arsenal replaed by a grim hope of escape, to "smoke and tell lies."

Theroux's London demonstrates how—as in the Detroit of Joyce Carol Oates's Do With Me What You Will or the McCarthy era of E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, to take two recent instances—the world of public history and observable place, the world, in other words, of facticity—may become emblematic of the inner recesses of the struggling human personality. (pp. 95-6)

G. F. Waller, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1976 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1976–77.