Protocol and culture clash

D J Taylor on tales of exile

Collected Stories by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn