Blinding Light, by Paul Theroux (Penguin Books)

Middle-aged travel writer with a writer’s block the size of Manhattan rediscovers he his creative powers, along with a prescient insight that makes him the toast of Martha’s Vineyard’s elite, an overnight celebrity, the President’s valued friend. And irresistible to women. If this sounds like a fantasy the middle-aged travel writer, Paul Theroux, might entertain, it wouldn’t be the first time. In Millroy the Magician, for example, which in its trajectory this new novel somewhat resembles, it is easy to read the titular protagonist as a Theroux figure. Oddly, this doesn’t harm the fiction as much as it should. Theroux’s ability to evoke character, particularly through dialogue, is always startling in its nuances, its depth of perception, and this ability seems to entail an ironic self-recognition that is extremely rare among novelists – I am reminded of D H Lawrence’s rather merciless self-portraits. Theroux’s new novel has some glaring faults, but it attempts so much more than the majority of contemporary fiction that these faults seem like the price of admission to a virtuoso performance. The faults, like the virtues, are all of a piece – you can distinguish them, but you can’t have one without the other.

To the virtues first. The book begins with a voyage down a muddy Ecuadorian river. The blocked writer, Slade Steadman, is part of a small, wealthy tourist party in quest of a fabled, rare hallucinogenic drug. The setting and the other characters are vividly present: Ava, Steadman’s girlfriend, a gaggle of rich Americans (though gaggle is an apt collective noun, it doesn’t do justice to the sharp and subtle distinctions Theroux draws between them), and the German, Manfred, who, as his name suggests, is a kind of anti-Steadman, a parasitical, prowling figure who stalks the perimeters of the narrative. Steadman, alone among the travellers, experiences the drug’s mind-altering properties, and Manfred (whose name is also a rather obvious signpost that a Faustian bargain is being entered into) introduces him to another, even rarer drug, a species of datura, that gives Steadman prescience, the blinding light of the title. The acute insight is literally blinding: while under the effects of the drug, Steadman is physically sightless. His vision returns as the effects wear off. The novel traces a year spent under the drug’s influence, a year in which Steadman learns to savour more and more the preternatural sensitivity the drug gives him, which his physical blindness only enhances. His new novel is written, with Ava’s collaboration, and is a huge success. Steadman, the Blind Great Writer, is an even huger success. Bill Clinton, “a watchful, anxious man who had spent his life being observed, who could not bear unsympathetic scrutiny, who hated to be alone” seeks him out, and is as scrupulously observed as John Travolta’s remarkable portrayal in Primary Colours.

The nature of celebrity, the horrors of the Book Tour, the well-meaning condescension of stupid people towards the handicapped are brilliantly conveyed. I use the word “handicapped” advisedly: this novel is, in ways that improve and mar it, as far from political correctness as it can be. This is particularly evident in the evocation of relationships between the sexes, and it is here that the novel comes unstuck – or rather, stuck. The long passages detailing the sexual adventures of Steadman, drugged and blind, and Ava, are both pornographic and tedious. Purporting to be new revelations of truth through sex – paths of excess leading to, and all that – they are in fact one cliché after another. How such a wonderfully perceptive writer can also be so banal is a mystery. An example:

“What she said next was so memorable to him, he kept it to himself as a wicked secret, and never recalled it afterward without seeing the redness of her lips and tongue, the unsuspicious smiling Yankee with his tankard in the white blouse and the silly improbable hair on the Sam Adams beer sign, the slant of light and wooden threads on the screw bung of an ornamental wine cask, the saltshaker shape of the fat, squat Edgartown Harbor lighthouse, the outgoing tide swelling and chafing at the edge of the On Time Ferry plowing a dark furrow through the current on the Chappaquiddick side, a woman walking nearby on the beach with a cigarette in her mouth and a scarf twisted on her head – all of it fixed in his mind with her blunt  statement.”

Now that’s great writing. But what does she actually say? Something so mind-numbingly commonplace that, as a reader, you’re disoriented – a cliché of concupiscent middle-aged male fantasy. For all his insight, Steadman remains a dirty-minded boy, with a surprisingly limited, stale imagination. The novel picks up pace again when Steadman’s physical blindness becomes permanent, and his prescience deserts him. His only hope is a village deep in the Ecuadorian jungle, his only means of getting there his vengeful enemy, Manfred. The ending is perfectly judged. On the evidence of this novel, Theroux, I think, must be a terrible human being. But he’s a terrific writer.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets