Theroux and Through

Julian Barnes

  • The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 303 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 241 11086 6
  • Doctor Slaughter by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 137 pp, £6.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 241 11255 9

A couple of years ago there was one of those Barry Humphries TV specials in which the Australian entertainer teases an audience of notables to the edge of humiliation. The guests attend to the act warily, poised between the pleasure of being official celebrities and the fear of being publicly ridiculed. After tormenting various patsies in a way that must have made them wish there was an RSPCA for humans, Dame Edna (for it was she) suddenly spotted Melvyn Bragg. ‘And there’s little Melvyn!’ she yelped. The erstwhile chairman of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel grinned no more easily than any of us would have done in his place. ‘Hands up,’ demanded Dame Edna, ‘hands up anyone who’s read one of Melvyn’s novels.’ For whatever reason, not a single hand was raised: whereupon Edna came over all sympathetic and chiding. ‘Now don’t you go writing any more of them, Melvyn, until we’ve all had time to catch up.’

Even Paul Theroux’s most devoted readers might by now be puffing a bit and asking for time to catch up. After a fertile beginning (five books in the first seven or so years), Theroux has doubled his striking rate: since Sinning with Annie (1975) he has published 14 books, three of them involving lengthy journeys – through Asia, through the Americas, and now round the entire coastline of the United Kingdom. The shoe leather and typewriter ribbons are being worn through in Bellocian fashion. This needn’t be relevant, of course: but on the evidence of his latest two books, even those sympathetic to Mr Theroux’s cause must be urging him to slow down.

In The Kingdom by the Sea the advantage of slowing down can be seen in the most straightforward fashion. The starting-point of Mr Theroux’s trip round the country’s edge is Margate. On the way down there from London he has a bad (but distinctively British) time on a skinhead-ridden train; in the town, he finds the prospect of that traditional British entertainment, the three-way fight between skinheads, mods and police. Instinctively, he moves on:

I had no stomach for this. And did I have to spend the night here to confirm what I could easily predict? I was repelled by the tough ugly youths, the aimless people, the nasty music, the stink of frying, the gusts of violence. Why should I suffer a bad night in a dreary place just to report my suffering?

Later, in the Isle of Wight, Theroux discovers in a shop window a card advertising clandestine celebration of the Latin mass. He dials the number (Newport 4220 if you’re interested), but gets no reply. ‘It was perhaps an example of my aimlessness that I would gladly have changed my plans and walked to Newport to find out about the secret Catholics if I had been able to raise anyone with the phone call.’ He moves on. In Bristol, not long after the St Paul’s riots, someone offers to introduce this seeker of the country’s soul to ‘some really angry blacks’. He declines: ‘In a general sort of way, I knew why they were angry.’ He moves on. In Whitehaven, he telephones a colliery and asks if he can go down the pit. An official tells him it’s forbidden, but Theroux suspects that if he had met the same man in a pub and asked him informally, then a visit could have been wangled. He doesn’t try the pub, and moves on. Throughout the book he is forever moving on, from one empty seaside hotel to the next, from one briefly useful conversation to the next. At the end the traveller reveals that his trip has taken almost three months: at first you are surprised at the shortness of the time, and then not quite so surprised.

Most readers, I suspect, wouldn’t have minded a report on Mr Theroux’s suffering (apart from anything else, it isn’t ours); would wish that he had persisted in the matter of the Catholics and the coalminers; and would be surprised that a novelist was content with knowing ‘in a general way’ about the feelings of angry blacks. But the disappointment is more than just moral (here’s this fellow pretending to explain Britain to us when he can’t even be bothered ...) or practical (putting yourself out can be as instructive as following your fancies): it’s also aesthetic. For these honestly reported refusals of experience – and not least the casual, suck-on-this way in which they are delivered to the reader – elbow the author more into the centre of the book. Here I am, tetchy; here I am, bored; no, sorry, I don’t think I’ll do that after all. This is a strong tendency in recent travel writing – the traveller going to an unexciting location and reporting on his lack of excitement; Jonathan Raban and Hugo Williams purvey this mode as well. Is it that old-style travellers chose their destinations better? Did they perhaps fake their enthusiasm? Or was the world simply fresher then? Today’s travellers may claim a greater truthfulness by reporting their blisters and their ennui: though interestingly they also deploy a wider variety of fiction-based techniques to convey that truth (this used to be called ‘making it up’). And as they press themselves upon us and demand that we examine the voyager along with the voyage, we discover a fairly down-in-the-mouth crew. At Brighton, Theroux runs into Jonathan Raban, who is circumnavigating the island in a small boat on the way to another travel book. Theroux glances at his rival’s log, and is surprised that it only mentions wind and rain. ‘I keep planning to make notes,’ explains Raban. ‘But I never seem to get around to it.’ Let’s hope Mr Theroux hasn’t blown the gaff here on his colleague.

The Kingdom by the Sea gathered a fair number of Little Englander reviews; while on BBC 2’s Bookmark a professional wrestler-turned-actor on the distinguished panel even gave the author rebuking tips on how to have good times and hot dinners in some farflung town. The book certainly won’t rank as promo material for the English Tourist Board: the virtues Mr Theroux discerns in our country aren’t crudely marketable. Moreover, the novelist was making his trip at the time of the Falklands War, an enterprise which leaves him both unimpressed and embarrassed for us. He quotes with approval Borges’s brilliant observation: ‘It is just like two bald men fighting over a comb.’

But on the whole Theroux’s attitude to us is one of benign surprise. He is drawn to Butlin’s Britain rather than Bandstand Britain; he cultivates complainers while detaching himself from their complaints; he is amused by a national taste for understatement; he notes the ‘wary curiosity and frugal kindness’ of English hospitality; he finds only one man in Scotland to dislike; and in Ulster, where the sight of ordinary life proceeding amid extraordinary circumstances excites his eye and mind to the best section in the book, he is surprised not to meet a single bigot. In Aberdeen, he stops to list what he likes about Britain: ‘the bread, the fish, the cheese, the flower gardens, the apples, the clouds, the newspapers, the beer, the woollen cloth, the radio programmes, the parks, the Indian restaurants and amateur dramatics, the postal service, the fresh vegetables, and the modesty and truthfulness of people’.

It isn’t the sort of back-slapping list a smiling tourist might give you (no Royal Family, no policemen, no Shakespeare, no Falklands): but it is, in its own way, and give or take an item (I wouldn’t mind the address of Mr Theroux’s baker), modest and truthful. Few nations, of course, like to be told they’re modest; and testy patriots will doubtless resent Theroux’s closing comparison of Britain to a fat woman who’s given up combing her hair: ‘she just let herself go’ is the homely phrase he lights on to epitomise our current condition. From brief asides like this he constructs in the end a judicious and kindly appraisal of our country: but the reader has to tramp a long way for a few remarks dropped from the corner of the mouth.

In Scotland, Theroux tries to track down the Queen, who is there on an official visit. Directed from one place to the next without running her to earth, he comforts himself with the reflection that all mileage can be turned into prose: ‘That was a page, and here’s another page, and there’s probably another page in Anstruther.’ This admission breaks the surface like some roped dog, tossed into the river from a bridge, which pops up miles downstream, putrid and accusing. At times like this Theroux seems to find the pleasures of writing as wearisome as the pleasures of travelling. Doctor Slaughter, his new novella, also suggests that writing is the bit you just have to get through, somehow. ‘A book,’ observes its main character, ‘is a pain in the ass.’ It’s a cute wink from the author, of course, but it also comes across like a confessional whistle.

Set in an underdescribed London which reminds you how splendidly Mr Theroux once managed the smoky atmospherics of Catford and Deptford in The Family Arsenal, Doctor Slaughter opens at a dinner party populated by nasty people (a homage, perhaps, along with the title, to Greene’s Doctor Fischer, or the Bomb Party). It takes us lengthily into the life and body of Lauren Slaughter, research fellow-cum-escort girl; then ties itself off in the final pages with the all-purpose granny-knot of international terrorism. The plot is thin, the subsidiary characters are ciphers, and the prose is inert: slow down, you find yourself whispering at Mr Theroux, have a good look at Margate. The main interest, for reader and presumably writer, lies in the central character, a young American woman at large in London. She is, we learn, glamorous yet highly intelligent; strong in character, and very sexy; she can hold her own on the Middle East, but goes around naked under a mink-lined raincoat; she knows about China, but can also mouth a banana provocatively; she runs seven miles a day, eats a vegetarian diet, and doesn’t wear knickers; she exercises power over men by letting them believe they are exercising power over her (‘No one fucks me – I do all the fucking’); she considers ‘writing a paper on diet and health, using Lévi-Strauss’s studies of Indian culture and food as a model for Arabia’ while being buggered regularly (and painlessly too, it seems) by £200-a-trick Kuwaitis; she was originally called Mopsy Fairlight, but has changed her name (by whim and marriage) to Lauren Slaughter. The more she is described, the less she is realised; finally, she becomes incredible, like one of those fantasy women who advertise the Daily Mail on billboards, or some classy version of a Penthouse Pet. After being much sodomised by Arabs, she makes the following joke to a male colleague at the Hemisphere Institute of International Affairs (the reference is to American football): ‘Be careful in Kuwait. You’ll go in a tight end and come out a wide receiver.’ It reads like the sort of smartass line that a male novelist, reckless about plausibility, can’t resist imposing on a female creation. Perhaps at some future date we shall discover that Paul Theroux truly met such a Mopsy Fairlight or Lauren Slaughter at some embassy party, that she told him all she did, and that she made exactly this joke from American football: but that would make it worse, not better.

On page 11 the face of a sweating black tailor is ‘beady-wet like a cold plum’; on page 12 old women cough like outboard motors; on page 89 there is a good observation about householders’ sensitivity to noise; and on page 124 there is an amusingly scornful description of the male organ. But for the rest – and remembering The Mosquito Coast – it seems a pity that Mr Theroux, instead of this latest novel, did not deliver to Messrs Hamish Hamilton Stevie Smith’s two-line poem ‘To an American Publisher’:

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You like it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.