The title of Paul Theroux's book raises several teasing possibilities. Is this a novel or a memoir? Is it fantasy or confession? And how does what it promises to disclose differ in status from the disclosures in his novel My Secret History? Just as you're trying to get your head round these questions, along comes the further confusion of a prefatory note:
"There are some names you know - Anthony Burgess, Nathan Leopold, Queen Elizabeth II, and more, but they too are alter egos, other hes and shes. As for the other I, the Paul Theroux who looks like me - he is just a fellow wearing a mask. It is the writer's privilege to keep some facades intact and use his own face in the masquerade. It was the only area in which I took no liberties. The man is fiction, but the mask is real."
Got that? The Theroux in the book is a mask but the mask is real. Or maybe not, since he also calls his book "a novel", and novels consist of lies. Who, anyway, is the author of this note, who signs himself PT: Paul Theroux, "Paul Theroux" or some other prick-teaser? The games here are dizzying, and enough to drive all dogged, truth-seeking readers up the wall.
What's Theroux up to? Critics might want to embrace him as a tricksy postmodernist; yet what distinguishes his book is its old-fashioned storytelling. Cynics might suspect him of trying to write an autobiography without running the risks (whether libel suits or the anger of compromised friends) which non-fiction entails; yet the book is far from cowardly, and is unlikely to avoid causing offence. In truth, Theroux's problem with truth goes deeper. My Other Life is a book about doubt and double identity. Its narrator, Paul Theroux, is a man in the middle of a crack-up - a husband who loses his wife; a traveller who goes off the rails; a novelist who stops writing; a self-seeker who can find himself only in aliases.
The ground, to begin with, seems solid enough. After a brief memoir of an eccentric uncle (which hints that fiction and madness run in the family), Theroux turns to a region he's written about before: Africa, and time spent in a leper colony, and two very different women there, one white, one black. Another memoir follows, again seemingly candid and authentic, about a rich businessman who becomes Theroux's patron in Singapore in return for literary gossip and poetry lessons - a strange but mutually satisfactory situation that continues until the writer spurns the advances of his patron's wife. His parting shot is to steal a Chinese burial mask from his employer which realises pounds 13,000 at Christie's back in London. Fiction or wish fulfilment? It doesn't seem to matter: like "The Lepers of Moyo", this chapter makes a brilliant story in its own right. And since the patron is himself a thief and arms dealer, Theroux retains the moral high ground.
The next two chapters draw wonderful portraits of dank, sepulchral, class- ridden London in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The first features the socially powerful and sexually voracious Lady Max, a bruised peach who tempts Theroux - then a little-known writer struggling to support his young family - to taste her poison fruit. The other recalls Anthony Burgess, and a dinner party from hell at which, out of drunkenness or malice or both, Burgess humiliates a boring but harmless fan who is desperate to meet him. The stories are powerful, but their procedures baffling: Anthony Burgess keeps his real name, while Lady Max, also based on an actual figure, is pseudonymous. Is one story more true than the other? Or simply more protective (or self-protective)?
Such questions return in another London episode, when Theroux meets the Queen at a private dinner party. Nervous and inappropriate ("That reminds me, I must buy some stamps" he whispers as she enters the room), he later arouses a touching concern in her: "You will get nowhere if you simply moon around, feeling sorry for yourself," she says, noticing his muddle and misery. There's the ring of reality here. Then again, it could be just a classic commoner's fantasy of feeling the touch of a monarch's hand. Theroux isn't telling. Or rather he is telling, storytelling, and asking us to enjoy his story without worrying overmuch whether it's true. The woman murderer on the Cleveland Way he fails to sleep with; the East European writer whose books have all the same titles and themes as his: can they be real? Forget the question, Theroux seems to be saying. How real are any of us? Just read the book.
The reason Theroux is feeling sorry for himself when he meets the Queen is that he has split up with his English wife. "Failure is a sort of funeral," he writes, "and a person fleeing a collapsed marriage is both the corpse and the mourner." He can't write, can't travel, can't think straight, becomes agoraphobic. He counts obsessively, and sends himself postcards ("Dear Paul, How are you? I haven't seen you lately"). He returns to Medford, his home town, and hangs about with a bunch of teenage druggies and losers. He talks to a woman he once had a brief affair with and, out of curiosity, tracks down her recently ditched husband. Aliases help him move around undetected. Even when he uses his real name, people fail to recognise him or get it wrong: the kids in Medford think he must be Henry David Thoreau, or maybe Scott Turow. He's confused himself, and starts to see an analyst - then falls in love with her, and has to stop. He surrounds himself with lies, forgetting that his surname rhymes with true.
But time, or therapy, slowly heals him, and teaches him to accept the death of his old self. "We are better off knowing that we belong here in our own world," says a voice, bleakly poetic, in his ear. "No one is waiting for us somewhere else."
On the evidence he presents, Theroux won't find it easy to settle for the solitudinous fate his book decrees. He likes company too much, especially female company. Though cold-eyed and self-absorbed, My Other Life is oddly generous, hugely readable and highly quotable. It's one man's life, but Everyman's crisis. It seems honest. Even if it isn't honest, it's true.
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