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The Collected Stories
Paul Theroux

The Collected Stories
Paul Theroux
Penguin Books
London 1998

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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 it apart.

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 practical logic.

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 begins.

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


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