Travelling in circles

Robert Taubman

  • The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 392 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 241 10688 5

Paul Theroux is the author of The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express. He is better-known for these than for his nine novels. The novels are extraordinarily different from each other, and haven’t given a distinct image of Theroux as a novelist. He has set them in Kenya, Malawi, Singapore, London, Dorset, Cape Cod, and now in Honduras; and produced as many different kinds of novel. Graham Greene ranges as widely, but the Greene themes and style impose them selves; and Theroux has written on V.S. Naipaul’s themes. Apparently his own work doesn’t have the same sort of continuities.

But we can spot, at least, a traveller’s interests and attitudes in the novels as much as in the railway books. They have the eye for detail and the ear for sounds of a stranger who notices more than a native does. The Cockney speech of the London novel The Family Arsenal comes across as no less strange and freshly rendered than the Creole of The Mosquito Coast. Theroux is pedantic about sounds. ‘ “Born and bred in Tulse Hill,” said Mr Flack, pronouncing it “Towse Hew”.’ ‘Yerp’ is American for ‘Europe’. And frequently, in all parts of the world, there occurs the well-practised joke or bar-room story. This is due partly to Theroux’s sense of fun, which is both ironic and sympathetic and enlivens all his books: but also to the fact that this is typical traveller’s fare, a means of communication between strangers. The traveller who gives his character to these novels may have come from the Eastern United States – as do Theroux himself and several of his narrators – but that isn’t important. This traveller brings next to nothing with him – none of the conventional assumptions or idiosyncrasies of the older generation of English travellers, for instance. He is detached, unromantic, and virtually homeless, though fascinated by other people’s idea of ‘home’. But he’s not just a camera eye. He’s not unsympathetic; and he’s drawn to others like himself, other displaced persons: artists, pimps, terrorists or simply expatriates. The three woman teachers in Girls at Play are in themselves no more than stock characters: it’s their displacement that provides the point of this gruesome comedy, the fact that their very English, games-playing school is in the highlands of East Africa. Maude Coffin Pratt, a famous American photographer who narrates Picture Palace, is an artist in observation, and this depends on her acute sense of not belonging wherever she is: ‘The people on the sidewalks had that mysteriously purposeful attitude of pedestrians in foreign cities, a hint of destination in their stride. I wondered briefly why they weren’t on vacation like me; it was as if they were only pretending to be busy. Mine was the traveller’s envy: regretful that I didn’t belong here like them and finding an unreality in their manic motion.’

And Theroux’s characters, like Maude Pratt’s favourite subjects, aren’t only out wardly displaced: they have a remarkable capacity for an inner displacement. They are what Maude calls ‘the best kind of hero... the angel with the human smell’. This is with reference to her picture of Che Guevara – which in fact doesn’t satisfy her: ‘I made him seem better than he was. It was the beginning of his myth, a deception people took for truth because it was a photograph.’ But Theroux’s characters really do astonish us by being better than we thought they were. Jack Flowers, in Saint Jack, is a hard-working pimp in Singapore and no saint at all, but a man with unexpected reserves of decent feeling. It’s a moving oment in Jungle Lovers (a misleading title for a sensitive and observant novel about Mal awi) when Calvin Mullet, an insurance agent touting his policies to the natives, decides that he can no longer live with his profession. The opium-smoker at the beginning of The Family Arsenal pursues a villain across South London and kills him, for insulting a road-sweeper.

These surprises and reversals of character come about because the novels themselves are far from simple. They’re not only very different from each other: each of them contains its own strange mixture of genres, as if the term ‘interfaces’ had been specially invented for Theroux. Saint Jack counterposes elements of the rogue’s tale, farce and morality. Picture Palace is variously concerned with photography, incest and blindness, with images of a glittering world and of private despair; and though fantasy is the dominant mode, it contains a long interview with the perfectly real Graham Greene, The Family Arsenal has tight, ingenious plotting – unlike any of the others – and topographical realism: but also fantasy and farce and the apocalyptic imagery of terrorism. It has compassion for some of its characters, the urban disaffected, and contempt for others, the trendies. Perhaps it has too much; I don’t know that here Theroux quite gets his interfaces together.

His new novel The Mosquito Coast is all the better for attempting a clearer separating-out of fantasy and reality. The reality of the setting is unquestionable, whether it’s Massachusetts farmland or the jungles and swamps of Honduras. This is Theroux as observer at his most convincing – and particularly so because everything is conveyed through the eyes of his 13-year-old narrator. Charlie has reliable eyes, persuading one that he sees the truth – as on meeting the migrant workers his father calls ‘savages’: ‘They did not look savage up close. They looked poor and obedient.’ Or on going ashore: ‘That was Honduras, so far. Dead dogs and vultures, a dirty beach and chicken-huts and roads leading nowhere. The view from the ship had been like a picture, but now we were inside that picture. It was all hunger and noise and cruelty.’ And if he is trustworthy, this is partly because he is trusting. He accepts what he sees, with a natural gift for adaptation. He is not one of Theroux’s disaffected outsiders.

That candid gaze is also one that sees through his father, Allie Fox – his opposite, and his and the book’s great subject – though without failing in love and acceptance. Allie Fox is one of the over-size, manic fathers American writers do so well; a perpetual teacher and preacher, a prophet in the wilderness: whether the wilderness is one of cheeseburgers and pollution in modern America, or the primitive jungle to which he leads his family – and which he also comprehensively denounces. ‘Everything this place stands for, I despise,’ he says on the New Jersey turnpike, and he could as well say it anywhere. He is as much in revolt against God’s and nature’s way of doing things as New Jersey’s. But he has, in compensation, quite remarkable practical and inventive gifts of his own, a talent for ‘improvement’ – by which he means ‘doing a slightly better job than God’. The book contains much information, in workmanlike detail, about Father’s improvements to primeval rain forest and cloud jungle: the ice-making machine, the incubator, the sewage system, the windmill-pump, the fish farm, home-made soap. This is all fine and good – ‘“appropriate technology”, Father called it.’ But there’s no end to Father’s arrogance – ‘Tell me something I don’t know’ – or to his energies: he wants to transport the ice inland, to build a cable railway, to bore for a geothermal heat supply. ‘Father saw the river and said, “Let’s straighten it.”’ He starts to miscalculate and then to lie and to kill. It’s left to Charlie and the rest of the family to pick up native ways and make do with whatever is at hand: what Lévi-Strauss calls ‘bricolage’ and Father despises as ‘monkey stuff’.

The test of such a story is that the author’s own inventiveness has to encompass and realise for us that of his character – and Theroux is persuasive down to the last nut and bolt. Defoe with some help from Swift could hardly have done better. The place itself – jungle, rivers, swamps and the coastal dereliction – is no less securely established, through the freshness with which it registers on the boy’s mind, and not just by relying on local colour, though that indeed is there – the parva birds and crickyjeens, the kinkajous and the voom of a curassow. Theroux is equally good on Father’s fantasies – so long as he has these firmly located inside Father’s head. It’s a worry about the novel, however, that it doesn’t altogether keep fantasy in its place.

The story of this man might be expected to enlist a good deal of mythology on its side: myths of America and Eden and Prometheus. I think that it doesn’t do this, indeed that it positively resists interpretation on such lines. Big in his own eyes, Allie Fox isn’t big enough to be a mythological figure; he’s not a rebel against God or even America in the mould of rebels from Satan to Ahab; he is only a fantasist. He is Theroux’s disaffected man on an ego trip. These limitations are noted within the story itself, and clarified as Charlie comes to understand his father. The facts disprove Allie’s conception of himself as ‘the last man’ or ‘the vanishing American’, along with the story that North America has been destroyed, with which for a time he deceives his family. And yet, fantasy in this novel isn’t entirely contained within Allie’s head: some of it spills out, and along with his fantastic energies seems to take over the story itself. The disaffected man, seeking an ever more meaningless goal (‘It’s the empty spaces that will save us’), leads his family round and round the country until he dies of exhaustion, his tongue torn out by a vulture. And the novel itself takes on something of this quality. It’s a story of settling and unsettling, of leaving and then returning to North America, of nightmare journeys up and down rivers and round and round the father’s obsessions; and it ends because he dies.

A circular pattern, involving a paradox about beginnings and ends, is one Theroux uses for both his travel books, and it occurs in the novels. It implies a reluctance to pretend to any meaning beyond the aesthetic, the satisfaction of the pattern itself. The Family Arsenal doesn’t tell you anything profound about urban terrorists, but it makes a glittering pattern of intersecting circles as its bizarre characters shuttle round London. Picture Palace has a very idiosyncratic movement, which causes Maude Pratt’s own story to recede and the novel to turn in on itself: so much is it concerned with the self-contained world of images in themselves that all reality runs out of it – the case of a novel taken over by its subject. The Mosquito Coast has the pattern of a marvellous journey round a country and a character: but it’s not a myth, a fable or a criticism of life. Allie Fox is a fantastic figure, and the novel subsists on him and the sheer energy of his fantasies. These are at first inspiring, then less and less convincing, then awful and then nothing. But they don’t mean anything beyond themselves. A myth conceals a meaning, and Allie Fox has nothing to conceal.