Theroux says that when he was a child, his family thought he was
deaf. In fact he was dreaming. It is a self-perpetuating state,
the happy dreamer becomes more and more isolated and so the need
to invent his own world, his own stories, increases. Neither this
need to create stories, nor the sense of being set apart, seems
ever to have left Theroux. I imagine that his love of travel comes
in part from the fact that it forces him into an isolated role
which so suits him. Indeed, his best stories are those which capture
the essence of being on the outside that is so prevalent when
you are away from home.
Theroux uses Christmas to great effect in two stories in this
collection, Jungle Bells and White Christmas, as
a time of year which exacerbates the traveller’s feelings of alienation.
In the first, a young traveller gets way out of his depth in the
African bush. After a few festive drinks he finds himself in a
taxi with a Zambian woman who has taken a shine to him, and her
brother. He spends the next few days coerced into buying beer
for their extended family, trying desperately to escape and tormented
by the bar radio’s cheery renditions of Jingle Bells.
Then in White Christmas the new mission doctor in Ayer
Hitam spends an awkward and uncomfortable seasonal meal with an
eclectic, Anglicised group of Methodist Chinese and Catholic Indians
– " the Empire’s orphans". People in a humid climate,
nostalgic for a traditional English Christmas they have never
experienced. Meanwhile the local botanist recalls a miserable
childhood Christmas on a council estate in Coventry.
Theroux has the viewpoint of a very well travelled man and we
get a sense of many cultures and ways of perceiving the world
in his writing. In Clapham Junction, for example, we open
with a typical Hampstead dinner party. Innocuous enough but Theroux
springboards us off into Mao’s China and white man’s Africa. It
is what gives this collection it’s diversity and what really sets
This broad perspective has given Theroux a very real understanding
of people. I get the feeling that he has spent a lot of time observing
people, just watching how they behave in an almost anthropological
way. Occasionally you might wonder if his angle is slightly reactionary
until you realise he has in fact been drawing out your own limited
vision which he then exposes for what it is.
In White Lies, he introduces a comparison between lies
and insects or strains of bacteria. A lie as something that can
take hold of you and infect you. Jerry is a white man in Africa,
having a covert affair with the beautiful, velvet skinned, long
legged Ameena. When he spurns his African lover for the new girl
on the ex-pat scene, she appears to lay a horrific and debilitating
curse on him. But Theroux is playing on both Jerry’s superstition
and our own, both of which are laughable in the face of Ameena’s
Theroux has the short story writer’s gift of capturing so much
in a single page, yet it is the enduring tone of his voice which
unites these stories and makes for a very whole collection. It
is a voice that is enormously attractive, both honest and understated.
His style is dry and relaxed, the prose is evenly balanced and
the plots are well oiled.
He is also very sharp and not afraid to explore areas which the
more timid leave well alone. This tendency to peel back the layers
is beautifully evident in You Make Me Mad. Theroux delves
into the inner self and explores the boundaries between our subconscious
desires and what we actually verbalise. An elderly couple are
stationed in Singapore and while she ages dramatically he gains
a new lease of life and decides that a life without her in it
would be preferable. Theroux explores the words they say to each
other, a charade of familiar ritual that hides more sinister motives.
Then in World’s End he looks at a failing marriage through
the shifting boundaries of paranoia and the power of suggestion.
A man who is often away from home thinks his wife is having an
affair. He tells his young son to watch out for a thief, provoking
a Hitchcockian spiral of fear in the young boy until we ourselves
are no longer sure where reality ends and overactive imagination
Reading Theroux’s collection of stories here I am deeply impressed
at the subtlety of his conclusions. He tends to end without tying
up the loose ends, leaving us to consider all possibilities, unsettled
and stimulated. My only criticism would be that he has a tendency
to be verbose. You won’t find the short sharp shock of a short
story that can be so sweet in this collection. And so this book
is perhaps a little heavy for the explorer’s rucksack, but it
certainly gives some vicarious thrills to those of us shut indoors
against the spring rain.
Reviewed by Jessica Woollard