- 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.
Hatefulness without intuition can only do so much harm. Advanced sadism like Mother’s requires a certain amount of insight into her children’s inner lives, the better to sabotage them. Playing the sentimental matriarch to the hilt, she urges Jay, who has two failed marriages behind him, to ‘find someone’ (‘Do it for me’). He knows she doesn’t have his best interests at heart, but later on, when he’s in the first flush of a romance, sheer happiness makes him inattentive. Mother, detecting a fractional impatience during one of his visits, guesses he has an appointment, a date even, and rapidly teases out its significance. Jay has decided the time is right to offer his new partner, Melissa (known as Missy), a ‘commitment ring’, something short of an engagement ring but nevertheless the pledge of a shared future. In a matter of moments Mother has moved from oblique manipulation with a hint of self-pity – ‘Would I ever be allowed to meet her?’, forcing the desperately evasive answer ‘I’m sure she’d love to meet you’ – to winkling out the secret of the ring.
Jay’s blunder is highly consequential. Mother is indiscreet, or rather her idea of discretion is to mete out this gossip to one child at a time so as to extract the maximum juice from the fruit that has miraculously fallen in her lap. Floyd is the sibling who is most upset by the news, since he assumed he was in Jay’s confidence – though even if Jay had been surer about his future with Melissa he would have restricted the information, for fear of someone else tipping Mother off in the way he has so disastrously done himself. And Mother, asking querulously what the difference is between a commitment ring and an engagement ring, is entitled to assume that she hears wedding bells. With demonic perceptiveness she has grasped that this ‘commitment ring’ is a committophobe’s way of hedging his bets. That was his thought just before Mother pounced: ‘My ring would serve to show Missy I was serious while allowing me time to assess our situation.’ The relationship founders in the aftermath of Mother’s triumph.
Mother, as Jay remembers, had a comparable ascendancy over her husband. Even-tempered, unselfish, truthful, fair-minded, he was nothing like her. During one of her pregnancies he went house-hunting on her instructions. She dismissed his first few suggestions, saying that one would be hard to heat, another wasn’t on a bus route, the third was in a bad neighbourhood. Perhaps worn down by these autocratic rejections, the next time he saw a house he liked he handed over the deposit, guaranteeing that he would be penalised for every defect in it, every unreliability of heating or weatherproofing. A single thoughtless act of initiative put him in Mother’s power for as long as they lived in the house, and for all her complaints there was no suggestion that the family should move: it was a goldmine of grievance.
In one episode witnessed by Jay as a child his father was able to disengage from the grinding machinery of the marriage. Rehearsing for a local minstrel show (this was the mid-1950s), he started to salt his conversation with vaudeville banter – ‘She was too ugly to have her face lifted. They lowered her body instead’ – and progressively took on the persona of ‘Mr Bones’. Blackface consolidated the alienating illusion. After this manifestation of otherness there were no more complaints about the house. There’s something forced about the episode, though, and the subtext is spelled out in bold: ‘He was now a man in a mask, someone to fear, saying things he normally avoided, singing strange songs. In his minstrel show costume he could be as reckless as he wanted.’ This chapter is almost identical to the text of the title story of Theroux’s most recent short story collection, published in 2014, and perhaps needed to be recalibrated to serve the larger structures of a novel.
Jay has a grasp of the highly asymmetrical relationship between his parents: ‘She moaned about us, whispered in his ear. She had the ability to rouse Father’s wrath – he was irrational and violent when he was angry, and because of his passionate love for us, he became furious, nearly demented in his confusion, and hit us harder … Beating us was his act of loyalty.’ This seems some way from the sketch of Father as even-tempered and fair-minded, though the overall psychology is plausible. Father is allowed something that is consistently denied to Mother, the benefit of the doubt. Lots of it.
Mother Land is explicitly announced as an autobiographical novel (the relevant autobiography is Jay Justus’s), with a strange prickly bravado:
My life was of my own making. I regarded it as odious that any of my family, or anyone in the wider world, would presume to tell my story. Only I had the right and the qualifications; all the acts that applied to me were known only to me. Mother I knew was at the centre of my story. And I knew that once I embarked on it, I would write it with such completeness that no one would be able to deny it or supplement it. There would be nothing more to say.
Jay acknowledges that others might take exception, and even publish their own discrepant portraits of the matriarch, but ‘the truth of my fiction would put everyone else out of business.’ This sits oddly with the notion that Mother was different with every one of her children. How can Jay have the completeness of vision he claims? This overconfidence co-exists with a certain paranoia, attested by the idea that he has needed to believe that his life belongs to him because ‘so many family members were prepared to interfere with me, mock my writing, or claim that they knew better than I did.’
Refracted autobiography isn’t a new method for Theroux, though it necessarily risks disturbing the delicate contract between writer and reader. The writer’s freedom is likely to come at the expense of the reader’s. Readers of fiction are perfectly at ease with the idea that a novel is both true and not true, snuggling up very comfortably in Schrödinger’s box, next to that cat. It’s different to be told that a book is both fictional and nonfictional, primed to resist the validity of connections that are nevertheless being insisted on. Nothing could be more corrosive of the ontological surrender to a book that is a reader’s power and pleasure.
In Theroux’s My Secret History (1989), the protagonist was called Andy Parent, though he shared many characteristics and experiences with his author. An early section featured the alcoholic priest Father Furty, who recurs in Mother Land, though lacking his cardinal vice and apparently unfazed at now having spiritual responsibility for a different avatar of the author. My Other Life (1996) stayed closer to the outlines of Theroux’s history. Neither book is imaginable without the precedent of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound (1981) – in which Zuckerman’s succès de scandale Carnovsky stands in for Portnoy’s Complaint – and The Counterlife (1986). Theroux followed Roth into a hall of mirrors from which it is hard to find the exit.
Roth’s rationale for this navel-gazing form of metafiction invoked the example of fine art, where self-portrait is a pre-eminent genre: what could be more natural than using as subject matter the material you can never leave behind? Nevertheless it was when Roth became a public figure that the games of persona became obsessive, and it was when he cut back the self-referential element with Sabbath’s Theater (1995) that vitality came pulsing back into his fiction. Theroux’s minor innovation has been to add some indiscretion into the mix, providing useful boosts of publicity. He included in My Other Life a dinner with the Queen, an account which could be relied on not to be either confirmed or denied by official sources. There’s a less explosive titbit in Mother Land, the suggestion that Jay fathered an illegitimate child as a teenager, a boy who was able to grow up in the loving care of adoptive parents, helicoptered away from the horrors of the standard upbringing. As far as the book is concerned, outsourced nurture is the only kind that gives grounds for hope – there being no more good cheer in family life as he knows it than there is (striking expression) in a bucket of crabs.
At that wedding in England, Jay made a speech so off-key that it might be consciously offered as an opportunity to read his character against the grain, to decouple him from the author he so much resembles – what with their Italian-American mothers, fathers of French-Canadian descent, careers in lockstep and pair of UK-based sons thriving in the media. Addressing the bride, he says:
When Julian goes away, don’t think he’s feeling liberated and free … He is suffering. Travel is dreadfully lonely … Love is what he needs to travel. Love is necessary to his privacy … Don’t feel that, in his travel, Julian has run off. Or that you need to run yourself, to find another friend to spend time with – someone else to love. Wait for him. In travelling he is waiting for you.
Don’t fool around when he’s away – slightly odd advice to be giving your new daughter-in-law. If anything the speech reads as a reproach to Jay’s ex-wife, Diana. Certainly she takes it that way, coming over to ask, mildly enough, if he is angry with her. He denies it, but privately isn’t so sure, although feeling that ‘all my anger had been buried by time.’ Buried is not the same as dissipated. The postmodern apparatus of the book is likely to make the reader sniff the bait suspiciously rather than take it – this isn’t so much an unreliable narrator as a booby-trapped one.
The strongest and most mysterious relationship in the hellish family of Mother Land, the nearest both to real closeness and real antagonism, is between the two writers, Jay and his older brother Floyd. For much of the book Floyd is presented, like Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, as a self-intoxicated rhetorician and intellectual show-off, oversophisticated and destructive. The contrast in literary manner between the two writers is satisfying sketched: ‘Floyd was obsessive, addicted to books, print-hungry, more partial to the glissade of an elaborate metaphor than to its function, because its use was to dazzle, not to advance a narrative. He hated a pithy declarative sentence like this one.’ Floyd is alone among the Justus siblings in criticising people to their faces: ‘in a family of evaders, he was a confronter.’ In fact he savages them. Fred, the oldest sibling, is unlikely to be bothered by being likened to Eugene Wrayburn, nor Franny and her husband by being greeted as the Veneerings, unless they’re avid readers of Our Mutual Friend on the sly, but Rose (‘Miss Piggy’), Hubby (‘Giant Haystacks’) and Jay himself (‘Plastic Man’) don’t need to work to decode the insult. He reins himself in around Mother, but in her absence she is Queen Lear or ‘Addie Bundren, cursing from her catafalque!’ One of the first of his comments to be quoted in the book is about Mother’s devotion to her daughter Angela, who died in infancy: ‘I’m sure you’re aware that Paul Verlaine’s mother kept her two stillborn children pickled in a glass jar on a parlour shelf … Mother at least spared us that spectacle … of conspicuous foeti for the family to mourn.’ Angela is the only child who can never disappoint Mother, and her cult grows year by year. Jay imagines his dead sister as a potbellied angel, with grey hair and a fat face.
Mother’s devoted attendance at a bird-carving class means that every Friday morning she is guaranteed to be out of the house. Jay and Floyd can’t resist the temptation to poke around. They discover her banking records, and find that she has been subsidising some of her children, but not them. Jay photocopies the records. This perceived outrage, with its revelation of ‘the algebra of love’, licenses further raids and little acts of pilferage and desecration. Floyd writes ‘Fatso’ on the back of a photograph of Franny, hoping that sooner or later she will find it while dusting. The mood is one of joyous regression, intoxicated irresponsibility: ‘The excitement of driving with Floyd to Mother’s to sneak in made me giddy. It was the happiest of outings.’ By immersing itself so fully in the negative, Mother Land sometimes gives the impression of a perverse reinvigoration not impossibly far from Sabbath’s Theater, though there’s a great difference between the levels of accomplishment of the two books, in construction above all. The supreme moment of humiliation in Roth’s novel comes when Mickey Sabbath, taken in by his old friend Norman Cowan when no one else will help him, is discovered by his host arousing himself with intimate items belonging to Norman’s daughter.
In Mother Land it comes when Jay, on another Friday morning invasion of Mother’s house, this time a solo effort, is examining the contents of her china cabinet, planning to snaffle a crystal Swarovski owl (wasn’t it he who had bought it for her in the first place – duty free? How could that be stealing?) when he sees Mother’s reflection in a mirror, and realises she has given her bird-carving class a miss and is dozing. The click of the latch as he closes the cabinet, after restoring the owl to its place, is enough to wake her. If Mickey Sabbath’s transgressions are polymorphously perverse, Jay’s are the petty provocations of a child wanting attention however much he says he wants to be left alone.
The startling thing about Jay’s raids with Floyd is that they take place after Floyd made a public attack on him, an assassination attempt on his character and literary standing. This was nominally a review of Jay’s new novel, but really a broadside demolishing every aspect of his life, from the ‘Cape Cod meets Cheltenham’ accent to his sensitivity about his height (he ‘once made inquiries to me about platform shoes’). Jay’s image for his brother is the scorpion in the folk tale that is given passage across a river by a tortoise (in Theroux’s version, variously also a turtle or a frog) and promises in return not to sting his benefactor. Of course the scorpion breaks its promise, saying: ‘It is my nature to sting.’ In Theroux’s version, oddly, the scorpion waits to be safely on dry land before stinging. This sacrifices the tale’s only faint claim to psychological nuance: in most versions it strikes midriver, the point being that its destructiveness overrides considerations of advantage: it dies too. Recognising that Floyd attacks not because it’s a smart move (it could hardly be that) but because he can’t help himself would make more sense.
In a discussion of literary brothers Theroux mentions not just Thomas and Heinrich Mann and James and Stanislaus Joyce but Vidia and Shiva Naipaul, ‘both of whom I’d known’. At this moment the notional Jay Justus completely disappears within Paul Theroux, who had a famous if not enduring friendship with V.S. Naipaul, and whose unforgiving book on the subject, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998), shows that he too is part scorpion. There’s even less chance of remaining successfully immersed in the fiction once we learn that Floyd Justus’s review of his brother’s novel The Half Life, as printed in Mother Land, contains word for word quotation (the description of his younger brother as ‘small and surly and spiteful’, and an eater of prunes because of ‘bowel worries’) from a review Alexander Theroux wrote of My Other Life. In Mother Land the casus belli is Jay’s telling their mother but not Floyd of his liaison with Melissa. In life it was perhaps the unflattering portrait of Anthony Burgess in My Other Life that riled Alexander. Though Floyd Justus is presented as a poet, Alexander Theroux has published novels, one of which, Darconville’s Cat, was included in 1984 on Burgess’s list of Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 – A Personal Choice. If Paul Theroux needed a reason to sting Burgess, and Alexander Theroux a reason to sting back, that might be it. Or the whole feud might have been cooked up by the brothers to keep them both in the limelight. On either reading, it’s clear that ‘endocannibalism’, the practice of eating members of a kinship group, is the central ritual of the Theroux tribe as well as the Justus family.
In emotional rather than formal terms, the most obvious characteristic of the book is the refusal of empathy for Mother. Occasionally, though, Jay gets a hint of the desolation of her life: ‘alone in her home with her telephone, stirring up her children, and receiving visitors, dropping hints to excite their envy or whispering in their ears to remind them of their duties.’ This, though, is the second half of a sentence that begins with a selfish worry or even a premonition: ‘It made me deeply melancholy to think that I was headed for a life like Mother’s.’ Only once does he make a real effort to imagine what a particular episode was like for her: the time she worked in a department store after graduating from high school. No one had suggested that she go to college. It was only a chance meeting with an old schoolfriend that made her realise she had options – and though she couldn’t start studying until the second semester she eventually became a schoolteacher. ‘Why didn’t you ask your family about going to college?’ Jay asks. ‘I didn’t want to cause trouble. And they didn’t know any better.’ This version of events goes against her preferred narrative of having been nurtured and supported. And she caught up, didn’t she? ‘Mother turned the story of her family’s indifference into a story of overcoming the odds.’ Jay’s conclusion is hard to quarrel with: ‘How little I knew of Mother’s past.’ But this is not a remediable situation, since as the next sentence explains, ‘that was her habit of concealment, because she wanted us to believe in her virtue … Mother was self-made. That seemed to me a characteristic of tyrants … They require an element of mystery.’ Mother isn’t real to him, in the sense that she doesn’t obey the normal human laws, even when she constitutes the only reality.
Emotional paralysis is the subject of Mother Land, and it’s the triviality of the ugly behaviour on show, its entrapped unremitting pettiness, that makes the book both gruelling and marginally brave. Why should an experienced novelist find it so difficult to imagine the inner life of this matriarch? It comes to seem as if the difference between writing about your own lifelong emotional blockage and producing a postmodern novel where it’s the predicament of a hero very much like you is notional. The distorted status of the mother, apparently impossible to overcome, leaves little for other women to do except be her opposite, providing pure nurturing. After his marriages Jay is tempted by a sort of Tahitian idyll, in Mexico rather than the South Seas, but still the sort of dream that seemed to be on offer once upon a time to Gauguin. He stumbles across a Mexican family while researching an article, a family where he might be the missing element, supplying the only thing they seem to lack, an American income. Even a poor northerner can abundantly meet their needs, something that used to be called colonialist privilege now redescribed as a dream come true. Then, back in the States, he develops a connection with the Mexican nurse looking after Mother, when at last she can no longer live at home. Both women are a generation or so younger than Jay. His fantasy seems to be of being mothered (the polar opposite of being Mothered) by a devoted younger woman. He wants to be a mother’s boy while there’s still time. Perhaps those who didn’t really have a childhood can never escape its grip.
As if there wasn’t already a certain amount of creepiness in this turn of events, the nurse’s name is Angela – when Mother started referring dotingly to her, Jay at first assumed her sentimental fantasies about the lost child had become active delusions. To seek intimacy with a woman whom your mother sees as more or less her dead daughter magically restored to her is no ordinary flirtation. Angela is shocked that he has never told his mother he loves her, and he promises her that he will, he even feels he want to, but this is a game whose essential focus is hardly Mother. Nor is it exactly subtext: ‘my being much older was an asset. I had achieved the status of a protector. That was why she needed to see me being more loving with Mother. If I proved that I was protective towards this ancient and fragile woman, Angela would look on me with greater favour.’ This isn’t selfishness on her part but ‘an animal instinct’ requiring her to make sure that her children will be safe with a man not their father.
In 1983, Paul Theroux wrote an essay on ‘Being a Man’, urgent in feeling even when quaintly expressed: ‘I regard high school sports as a drug far worse than marijuana, and it is the reason that the average tennis champion, say, is a pathetic oaf.’ It makes the case that feminism (‘women’s lib’) had done ‘much more for men than for women’ by discrediting oppressive codes of masculine behaviour and the generally miserable predicament of being a man in America. Jay Justus seems not to have written anything similar – this is an area where the two writers’ bibliographies decisively diverge – and may not have read anything similar. It’s easier to accept the shedding of any pretension to equality in relationships if such equality was never proposed. Even so, it’s not quite fair to suggest that Jay feels entitled as a man to a woman’s devotion. It’s a writer’s entitlement rather than a man’s.
Deprived of any recognition within the family for his literary efforts, he imagines the way things should be:
In the cosy household of loyalty, you labour in the slanted light of your gooseneck lamp, white paper, black ink, the aroma of thick soup or of roasted tarragon chicken from the kitchen, the grateful muse – mother or spouse – stirring the rich broth of the fragrant stew. Everything solid, everything positive, nothing but praise in the steady climb from the obscurity of the study to the sunshine of the wider world.
The casual offering of mother and spouse as alternative cooks is startling enough (particularly as Mother’s food was inedible, more or less on principle), but why should a muse be grateful? What has she been given, exactly? Mother has conjured up her impossible opposite, someone as resourceful in praise and support as the original was in disparagement and undermining.
Of the women in the book, it is Melissa who comes the closest to possessing an individual identity. She has a career even if it’s not a glamorous one (working in a bank), she has a daughter. Jay can’t be her only concern, and you could say this makes her the real committophobe of the pair, since she claims the right to divide her attention. He doesn’t really want that. It’s the tragedy of Mother’s triumph that after her there is nothing left in terms of female possibility.