Adam Mars-Jones

  • Mother Land by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 509 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 14498 5

Big families are rare now in the West – even Catholic countries in Europe aren’t exactly prolific, though Ireland holds out against the trend – but even when they were commoner in life they didn’t loom large in fiction. Literature isn’t a branch of sociology, and drama favours a stage without too much human clutter. Veronica, the narrator of Anne Enright’s The Gathering, somewhere in the middle of a tribe of 12 (seventh from the top, fifth from the bottom), suggests there’s a certain uniformity about the large family: ‘There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister.’ That isn’t quite the set-up in Paul Theroux’s very disconcerting new novel, Mother Land. There are two success stories among the seven surviving Justus siblings (one died in infancy), neither colossal, and operating in adjacent areas of cultural activity: the poet and literature professor Floyd, and Jay, a novelist and travel writer with forty-plus books to his name (matching Theroux’s own tally), who narrates.

Family life isn’t short of critics in literature, but it’s hard to think of a novel to match this one, where bitterness comes to seem an end in itself. The Way of All Flesh was certainly an act of revenge on Samuel Butler’s part (prudently delayed until after his death), but his surrogate Ernest Pontifex could at least claim he had gained from his upbringing an education in the authoritarianism and hypocrisy that operate so strongly in the wider world. There seem to be no lessons to be learned from the Justus family except the wisdom of being born elsewhere. The strongest claim the narrator can make for general significance is to say that ‘the story of any large family is worth telling, because such families have been forgotten, yet the members of these complex and crazed clans have helped shape the world we know now, probably for the worse.’

The Justus family is a trap from which none of the siblings has been able to escape, despite marriages, careers and children of their own. When Mother is widowed she is in her eighties but has two full decades of tyranny ahead of her: ‘In old age we embarked on our true, awful childhood – infantile fogies ruled by their triumphant mother.’ This huddle of traumatised misfits can be mistaken, at a distance, for a close family, and even held up as exemplary. Only insiders understand the strategies of dominance exercised by someone who values her own independence (she lives alone) but derives all her nourishment from the subjection of her children, expertly playing them off against one another so as to make sure they compete for privileges.

Mother had never read Machiavelli’s The Prince or Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Yet her whole life, and especially her motherhood, was a vernacular paraphrase of these classics. For example, in Mother Land, as in Sun Tzu’s China, there were five classes of spies: local spies, inward spies, converted spies, doomed spies and surviving spies. And she would have agreed with the Master that when these five spies were all at work, no one could discover the secret system. This is called ‘divine manipulation of the threads’. It is the sovereign’s most precious faculty.

At other moments, Jay, the narrator, understands that what seems ‘Mother’s dark policy’ is no more than the improvising of a deviously inventive nature. Tyrants rule by instinct.

The vision of this Cape Cod widow, her smallness constantly emphasised, ruling her world by means of the divine manipulation of threads, comes right up to the edge of comedy but doesn’t cross over. Comedy offers release, and there is to be no release for Jay Justus and his siblings, and none for the reader. This is a repetitive book, and some of the redundancy could have been editorially trimmed – the phrase ‘Mother Land’ loses all force through overuse, and the constant comparisons of Mother with contradictory sorts of bird (raptor, hen) should have been thinned to leave the most cruelly effective: ‘In poor light, she looked mummified, like an upright feature of a catacomb. Or, beaky and bony, like a prehistoric bird, a giant moa, a vast, flesh-coloured sparrow.’ Some of the repetitive quality is necessary and even purposeful, corresponding to the emotionally frozen state of the family, its humiliated stasis. The word ‘Mother’ hasn’t been used so often, with a consistently negative implied intonation, since Psycho, and there’s not a chance of this being accidental.

The key to Mother’s method is divide and rule, belittling each child to all the others. At one point she is described as looking furtive and oppressed in the presence of her three eldest children: ‘She was our mother, but she was a different mother to each of us, and this gathering provoked confusion of the kind experienced by someone with multiple identities surprised by three witnesses. It was as though she’d been caught out in a lie.’ The moment a visitor leaves, she’s on the phone to her other children, devaluing every word spoken to her, every gift laid at her feet. The process of distortion is so rapid that sometimes Jay has only just arrived home when he receives a phone call from a sibling to let him know how deeply Mother has been disappointed or upset.

One passage analyses her method in detail, when Jay visits her after a happy time spent in England attending the wedding of one of his sons. He shows her a sequence of photographs:

Mother said: ‘The cake is nice.’

She meant: The cake is small and unappetising.

I said: ‘In England they don’t go in for big, tall, layer cakes. It’s more a kind of rectangular fruitcake that’s traditional. Some people take home pieces in little boxes.’

But Mother had stopped listening. ‘What kind of church is that?’

She meant: It looks Protestant.

‘St Mary’s,’ I said. ‘Eleventh century. Imagine – it’s a thousand years old.’

Mother said: ‘Who are those people?’

‘Those are the people who came to the wedding.’

‘Is that all of them?’

She meant: Just a few people.

‘Is that an umbrella?’ Mother said, putting her yellow nail on the camera panel. How had she seen that tightly rolled brolly?

She meant: And it rained.

‘There was just a sprinkle just as we left the church.’

Without any need for digital technology Mother has rapidly Photoshopped the wedding into the dismal version she will circulate among Jay’s siblings: nasty cake, bad weather, no wonder hardly anyone bothered to show up. Feigning a fluttering old-lady confusion, she hears each child’s unflattering version of small family mishaps, just about concealing the thrill she gets from stirring up so much ill will. Hubbard (Hubby), hastily putting up storm windows, smashed his thumb and needed stitches. Rose was overcharged for an oil change. Fred’s neighbours called the police over his big slobbery dogs. Franny, not looking, backed her car into a hydrant. Floyd lost his new girlfriend, not to mention his credit cards, to a complete stranger. No piece of information goes to waste. Every dried twig of gossip can be used to start or feed a fire.

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