Blinding Light by Paul Theroux

Shut your eyes and open wide...

In his latest novel, Slade Steadman is a Salinger-esque recluse after the spectacular success of "Trespassing", his cult novel about covertly bumming around the world without a passport. With Ava, the lover who is gradually separating from him, he is on a drug tour to Ecuador in search of ultimate inspiration for the follow-up book which has eluded him for two decades. On the flight to Quito he endures a maverick German ethnobotanist and two braying couples from San Francisco, all of whom end up on Steadman's jungle quest for the drug experience. Here Theroux's observation is at its most vital, joyously describing the threat of their arrogant, domineering behaviour, and encouraging the reader to shudder at their money-cosseted rudeness. The trip is a dismal failure until Steadman is persuaded to take another, rarer psychotropic potion, which renders him temporarily blind but stimulates terrific hypersensitivity and an insightful, hallucinatory experience which, he claims, allows him to look into people's hearts and read their minds. Retreating home to Martha's Vineyard, Steadman doses himself every day and begins dictating his excoriatingly candid memoir-cum-novel to Ava, who now remains with him, fascinated by his self-imposed, visionary blindness.

The bulk of Blinding Light pores over Ava's and Steadman's re-ignited sexuality. Since rapturously seducing Steadman in their Quito hotel while wearing only a cat mask, Ava has re-kindled her lust, fuelled by the erotic intrigue of blindness and role-playing. Theroux works this seam capably but relentlessly, from her wearing a wig on their second date to dressing as Steadman's high-school prom fantasy. Inevitably, Steadman's novel regurgitates his own sexual history: "The book's subjects were blindness and lust, offering no moral, nothing except the peculiar reality of one man's transgressions."

This also describes the limited horizons of Blinding Light. While the plot surges onwards with Steadman's hubristically defiant return to public life and personal calamity, any thematic coherence begins to falter. Looping ideas of possession, trespass, deceit and sight amount to little more than continuity links in the narrative. Steadman's shamanic mind-reading ability while drugged demands too much suspense of disbelief in an otherwise grittily naturalistic work. The book becomes bizarrely obssessed with fellatio. Ava heads a posse of women all clamouring for Steadman's seed. Even President Clinton has an insincere cameo as a high-profile fellatee and fraud, hiding behind a mask of bruised innocence. What remains is a strong, urgent narrative well worth reading for the zest of Theroux's descriptions alone, but which declines from a stimulated high of expansive promise to a hollow, unfulfilled conclusion.

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