Blinding Light, by Paul Theroux

Journey to the true self

Between these states of the night are blindfolds, unconsciousness, coma, real and phony blindness, stones on eyelids, couplings in the dark, and an erotic fixation with blindness that surprisingly is allowed to take over the book's motive power. In a sense, whether you will enjoy this novel depends on whether you share its author's erotic interests. It has not always, but often, been thus with Paul Theroux.

Blinding Light starts promisingly. Theroux's prose is as irritable as ever: on a journey to the far east of Ecuador his hero Slade Steadman, a best-selling travel writer both snobbish and waspish, is like an irascible chipmunk running around taking sharp little bites out of the human jungle. Steadman's voice is uncannily similar to Theroux's own in works like The Happy Islea of Oceania and The Old Patagonian Express, full of Theroux's trademark comic contempt when describing anyone hapless enough to find themselves in his way.

Steadman has known early success with a book called Trespassing, which, along with its merchandising, has made him rich. Since then, for 30 years, there has been nothing - a colossal writers' block. On what he imagines is a personal adventure with his girlfriend Ava into the dark heart of Ecuador, in search of "the tiger's blindfold", the king of psychotropic drugs which he hopes will cure his block, he finds himself saddled with a tour group. But what he finds in Ecuador is better than what he was looking for. He returns home with a temporary blindness that is also the elixir of creative insight. For a year he dictates his new book to Ava, the book that will reveal, with uninhibited access to his sexual past and fantasies, the true Steadman. Then he finds he has become truly blind.

What I like about Theroux's writing - what is genuinely seductive - is its energy, its vividness of annoyance and of noticing about his fellow humans. He sees that people say the most absurd things as if they're normal - Steadman remembers his ex-wife Charlotte, a slut in the bedroom and a prim executive outside it. "'I've got a marketing meeting in Cambridge with the sales people, and I haven't edited the pitches or read the spreadsheets.' What? Her work was a mystery to him." And as a novelist he does possess a power of (selective) sympathy: to begin with, Steadman is passionately interested in a Poe-like way in the workings of shamanism and of states of consciousness and the effect of the drug - that makes for interesting reading. Once these problems are resolved, however, he is passionately interested only in himself. Maybe that is the condition of being a writer.

If only the sexual autobiography that resulted from it were not so obviously a repetitive and uncompelling catalogue, maybe that could also interest us.

Julian Evans is writing the biography of Norman Lewis

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