When Paul Theroux first appeared on the scene, his non-fiction books were a bracing corrective to the kind of second-rate saccharine gush that then and now passed for travel writing, in which every land was a land of contrasts, every resort was luxurious, and every meal to die for.
Written by PR people who’d talked themselves into believing they were adventuring journalists, most travel essays were payment in kind, wherein free meals and accommodations were exchanged for reliably rapturous reports on all but the world’s most tyrannical and fly-specked outposts. It was a neat arrangement that served everyone’s interests except those of the traveler in search of genuine experience.
In absorbing narratives such as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Happy Isles of Oceania, and The Pillars of Hercules, Theroux promised, and delivered, that genuine experience, or at least a very personal and subjective version of it. Indeed, Theroux was hardly a travel writer at all, though his subject was travel. Rather, he was a kind of intrepid investigator of the clashes — of culture, of consciousness, of unrealistic expectations — that occur whenever an outsider penetrates an unfamiliar and “exotic” milieu.
While, in his non-fiction, that outsider was himself, in Theroux’s fiction, the outsider was often someone less comprehending and far less cosmopolitan, and thus far more prone to disaster than Theroux, who frequently could be dismissive and dyspeptic, but rarely incapable.
In Theroux’s brackish, world-weary new fiction collection, three very loosely linked novellas collectively called The Elephanta Suite, the setting is India and the characters are incapable, indeed. The result is a dismal book — a dismal reading experience, to be sure, but, as well, a book whose theme seems to be that foreign cultures are inherently unknowable and — even if one should accidentally approach, and begin to understand, that culture’s beating heart — inevitably dangerous, the result of such knowledge being disappointment at best and, at worst, rape, dissolution, or death.
In the collection’s first novella — the best of the three — a pampered and prosperous middle-aged American couple who are on an extended stay at a health spa are barely aware of India at all. They luxuriate in their yoga lessons and hot-oil massages, engage in some ill-advised sexual dalliances with Indian staff members, and, when they venture forth into a mysterious town just outside their compound, become trapped in a terrifying local religious dispute.
In the second narrative, a lonely American businessman in India to negotiate offshoring deals ends up going native when his own sexual dalliances with some needy local girls turn sour. And in the final story, a young female college student seeking spiritual sustenance is, herself, dallied with in an ugly way by an overweight young Indian man whom she makes the mistake of befriending. In each case, however, what’s really being played with is the characters’ comfortable assumptions, or arrogant ignorance, about India.
But it isn’t enough, apparently, for Theroux to put his characters through the mill. The reader, too, is assumed to be an innocent abroad who must be hectored incessantly about his own smug assumptions. The result is the most discursive and redundant book Theroux has ever written. Did you know that some Indians who practice Jainism are so respectful of life in all its forms that they won’t eat common food such as potatoes for fear of disturbing the “fungi and microbial substances” that grow on the surface? If not, you will be reminded of this fact by one of Theroux’s characters not once, not twice, but four or five times.
You’ll be reminded far too many times as well that, “(F)rom a distance, India was splendor; up close, misery.” This falls something short of a revelation, no matter how many times and in how many ways it is repeated. And we are told and shown so often that Indians come across (at least to Westerners) as finicky and stilted that Theroux himself begins to seem, well, finicky and stilted.
Theroux’s writing here seems to reflect a diminution in his own confidence, or perhaps in his confidence that readers will grasp his point. Consider this passage about a meal that’s not to die for: “None of the food looked edible. Although it was his second trip to India, he had not so far touched any Indian food. He did not think of it as food; all of it looked lethal.” Okay, we get it, food’s no good. Or this one: “She slumped and put her head in her hands, heavy, bereft, sorrowful in the empty room.” After the word “hands,” there’s nothing about that sentence that doesn’t represent diminishing returns.
Theroux, who wrote a superb novel some years ago called The Mosquito Coast about an intelligent but humorless fugitive from civilization, is sometimes too smart, and too disgusted with the things of this earth, himself. You can feel his contempt for everything and everyone — Americans, Indians, the very idea of civilization. Certainly it’s as legitimate a world-view as any other and doubtless hard-won, but the prospective traveler in Theroux’s precincts must be warned that there is no humor or warmth to be found there — and less fresh insight than one might expect to balance out these deficiencies. It’s hard to imagine anyone wishing to linger in The Elephanta Suite.