Protocol and culture clash
D J Taylor on tales of exile
The people in Paul Theroux's stories - the fruit of a quarter- century's magazine appearances and four full-length collections - tend to be exiles, both real and potential: American academics vacationing in London and hot in pursuit of the local literary fauna; Malaysians avid for a future beyond the gin-shop and the mah jong board. A good half of the 60 or so pieces here are conducted by Theroux's favourite raisonneur, the American diplomat: at first spotted in Uganda and the Far East, finally come to rest in London, and in each of these environments up against the eternal expat's problems of protocol and culture clash.
With their wry, featureless narrators and their focus on dusty little clubs set in the shadow of the rubber plantations, the Eastern stories carry strong whiffs of Maugham. Their patterns, too, are strongly reminiscent of Maugham's trademark procedurals: the cool, impartial narration always tugging the reader on, the constant ironical garnishes, the sharp final twist irrevocably shifting the alignment of the cast. In "Loser Wins", a husband accommodates his wife's chronic forgetfulness with a humorous and resented mock-sympathy. It comes as no surprise when, in the midst of a jungle excursion marked by lost maps, torches and leech repellent, she manages fatally to mislay this over-tolerant companion.
The English pieces follow a still more rigid compass. The titles --"Exile", "The English Adventure" - tell their own story. In "World's End" a kite becomes a symbol of an expiring marriage. In "Neighbours", the American diplomat inhabits a flat next to a meek but friendly civil servant. Complaints about a presumed second neighbour - a mohawk biker occasionally seen disappearing down the stairs in the small hours - are met with even greater diffidence. When the civil servant moves out, an unexpected silence falls upon the block.
This inability to leave anything open-ended comes across most strongly in a story called "Hayseed", set in a fly-blown town in the Mid-West. A big-talking revenant and the stolid owner of the local gas-station play pool and drink vodka, while the latter drops allusive hints (Theroux's dialogue is one of his enduring strengths) about a disintegrating relationship with his wife. The last sentence revelation of her suicide seems superfluous - dragging down a piece that would have been better left suspended in the ether.
Significantly, Theroux is much better at crisp little shards of determinism. In "Reggie Woo", the narrator tracks the career of a Malay actor whose failure sends him back to the tables of his father's bar: "I left before he caught sight of me and went back to the club, crossing the road with that sinking feeling you get at an unguarded boundary or a national frontier." The stories assembled here are full of these boundaries; an air of artificiality hangs over some of the journeys back and forth.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 4 The biggest first date turnoff has been revealed
- 5 German man found living with 300 rats in tiny apartment
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture