Paul Theroux, Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories

The title of Paul Theroux’s new story collection makes me expect something zany, gripping and sardonic. Sardonic they are, zany they may try to be, but gripping they’re not, entirely. “Unsettling” and “unloving” are words that come to mind, and I’m flirting with “unwholesome.”

201410-omag-booktober-8-949x1356I haven’t read much Paul Theroux. My parents had a paperback copy of The Great Railway Bazaar, and I was always drawn to the punchy, brightly-illustrated cover. I remember liking the Harrison Ford movie adaptation of The Mosquito Coast OK. I remember following his apparent spat with V.S. Naipaul because I was obsessing a bit about the auto-biographical element in fiction, and how writers transcend themselves, or don’t. But none of this added up to reading him.

Mr. Bones is a collection of twenty apparently recent stories, ranging in length from less than a page (you could argue — more on this below) to about fifty pages. In all candor, the more I read, the more offputting I found the work, and I began to wonder how reviewers come up with some of the things they say.

Theroux is obviously facile. He knows his craft, or seems to. I guess if I were a sculptor, though, I’d want a little more praise than “he’s a handy guy with a chisel.” I landed on the following complaints:

  • Theroux gives no sign of loving any of his characters. He handles them with a remoteness that conveys something near distaste
  • A sour, misanthropic distance pervades all the stories (see above)
  • Despite what I said about facility, the stories are “explain-y”, underlining things that should be obvious and inherent in the telling
  • Just as with Richard Stern’s stories, but rather more unsettlingly, there’s a pervasive male-gaze issue, especially toward women of Asian background, whether or not furnished with broadly-rendered accents
  • A number of the stories adopt a shock-driven or punch-line-driven strategy reminiscent of the horror genre
  • The work is touristic, flitting among locales and milieux, rendering them with distance, and tired tropes

As I read, I decided I’d have to touch on each of the stories to fully vent my concerns. I’ll try to stay away from outright spoilers.

Minor Watt: rich self-made art collector Minor Watt discovers perverse pleasure in destroying the works of art he’s collected for so long. He does this at length, tormenting artists, collectors, his wife. He is loathsome. I feel the author’s animus toward “the art world”, but I care not at all about Minor or what happens to him. In the end the author turns on Minor and makes him cruelly and savagely ridiculous. Serves him right, I guess.

Mr. Bones: we hear about the author’s father, a distant figure, whom we never get inside. His resentment of his family and circumstances surfaces in more and more aggressive good cheer and bizarre behavior. Nobody and nothing changes over the course of the story. The author takes people who are fixedly unhappy and externalizes their unhappiness into bizarre circumstance, which is one of the classic moves of the ghost or horror story

Our Raccoon Year: a different take on the same theme as Mr. Bones. The narrator’s father again is an unhappy man, this time due to divorce, but in time he channels his anger into hunting raccoons, and drags his children into his increasingly frightening obsession. No one changes, or is very much further revealed. Things become strange and unpleasant, and eventually the strangeness and unpleasantness peak.

Mrs. Everest: back in the art world, with a cruel portrait of an unlikeable art maven. Eventually the tables are turned on her. Unflattering portrait, again, of the art world. Again, no one changes much.

Another Necklace: precious, self-absorbed writer visiting Boston turns out to have a bizarre secret. It’s starting to look like the author doesn’t like “artists” or “writers” very much, nor the scene that surrounds them. Horror-story-like punch line.

Incident in the Oriente: short story about a general contractor working in foreign countries, who adopts a clever and ruthless solution to a personnel problem. Another punch-line story, less misanthropic than the preceding, but still a dark sit-com.

Rip It Up: picked-on geeks in a Boston-area school boil with frustration, begin building bombs in thoughts of revenge. The Boston focus begins to feel like tourism, the unfired gun. We get “pissah” and “wicked scared”, but why? Just color? Again the arch and sour distance. Theroux may render these kids’ frustrations with some fidelity, but without visible love or fellow-feeling. And another issue, and this could spawn a whole series of posts: the time, the historicity of this story is murky, and ordinarily that might be fine, but not with kids building bombs to maybe use at school. Is this before Columbine? After? I don’t think an artist has the luxury of just making a handy copy of our real world, snipping out the troublesome or conflicting bits, and then going and writing Over There. There might be other views but I found this jarring. The ending, again, is a bit punch-liney and cruel.

Siamese Nights: the longest story in the collection at about fifty pages and arguably the best, or at any rate least afflicted by the list of gripes from above. A businessman in Thailand becomes more and more intimate with a woman he meets in a bar, refusing to treat her like a commodity as do his co-workers, but entering into a real relationship. This story arguably treats its characters with the most respect and affection of any in the set. It spins around a central conceit that is sharp and very rich in possibility. But it trades that richness for an ending inclined only to shock. I think Theroux had a terrific idea here, one for which he had real feeling, but didn’t excavate fully, just wrote in one end and out the other.

Nowadays the Dead Don’t Die: Four-pager. Somewhere, sometime in Africa, things start bad and get worse.

Autostop Summer: A writer returns to Italy, and looks up someone with whom he had a disturbing encounter long ago. The author is, again, unflatteringly rendered. And again, at the end, that which was dark all along is still assertively so.

Voices of Love: Now my confusion and irritation really began to deepen. This is an assembly of fifteen super-short stories, about a page each. Each describes, in winky, staccato bursts, some improbable sexual adventure, generally one in which other characters entrap or seduce the point-of-view character, hammering on the idea that the world is a strange or perverse place and people are not what they seem. These read like nothing so much as a pastiche of cleaned-up Penthouse letters or Internet short erotica.

The FuriesA man brings his second, much younger wife, to a high school reunion. Women he was involved with, or who believe he’s wronged them somehow, begin to intrude like the avenging spirits of the title, heckling and humiliating him, hounding him until his second marriage also collapses.

Rangers: I tried hard to understand what was happening in this short, staccato, Elmore Leonard-esque story. But I couldn’t really. I was probably getting impatient at this point.

Action: narrated by the son of an eccentric, distant, suspicious shoe salesman, whose peculiar and frigid demeanor reminds you of the fathers in “Mr. Bones” and “Our Raccoon Year.” The young narrator wanders through Boston, bumbles an errand, wanders into the apartment of an older female acquaintance, has vaguely sexual thoughts about her, is chased out violently by another visitor.

Long Story Short: We’re back on the same ground explored in “Voices of Love”. Twenty-two ultra-short stories of a page or so. These are not breathless sexual adventures, but what I suppose are intended to be quick flashes of light in the dark, snapshots, the old slices of life. But they still wander among shock-value gotcha punch lines and snapshots that don’t seem to be of much of anything, like “art” made out of found objects or sounds. A snapshot should make me think. These didn’t much.

Neighboring Islands: The touristic element starts to feel even stronger here — the story of a Hawai’i policeman’s bursting in on his wife in a sensitive situation, told from five different viewpoints. Methodical invocation of local dialect, situation, color. It’s an interesting conceit, but like much else here, rendered with a clinical, severed distance.

The Traveller’s Wife: The wife of a travel writer turns the tables on him by beginning to travel herself. The writer knows nothing of what goes on during her journeys. He comes to understand how it must be for her, when he’s gone. But Theroux, as in many stories, simply uses this knowledge to punish and ultimately crush the poor protagonist.

The First World: Alongside Siamese Nights, this is one of the more compelling stories in the set. Is it any accident that this story, too, considers the situation of a man who falls into a relationship with an Asian woman? In this case it’s a self-made rich man on Nantucket, who wants to build a big house but is tripped up by the small-minded neighborhood association. His relationship with his Vietnamese cleaner is the centerpiece — it’s rendered with some real intimacy and affection. Theroux’s literal rendering of Nhu’s accented English might grate on some readers, but it’s mostly accurate and effective and shows a good ear, only sometimes slipping into caricature. (The same could doubtless be said of Faulkner’s rendering of Afro-American accents ca. 1927 — is it unsavory to revel in how precisely these authors hear?) The protagonist, though, like Minor Watt, is someone who’s used to getting what he wants, acts that way and doesn’t change. 2The only things really at stake in the story are whether self-absorbed self-made rich fella will or will not get all the things he wants. Emphasis on things.

Heartache: By now my teeth have begun to grate at the obvious touristic flourishes. We’re in the deep south (oh, wait now, the Deep South, forgive me). We’re eating in Louleen’s. We have an elderly white woman, with a black lady helper named Perta Mae. Can Toni Morrison or somebody please just come club this guy? This is I guess supposed to be an introspection on the white gal’s career as a writer. The Southern stuff is all window dressing. I am flipping pages quickly, sorry to say.

I’m The Meat, You’re the Knife: This last story unsettled me and shook me out of my now-complacent judgment. It has more than a whiff of Stephen King. It made me wonder whether all the previous stories weren’t much more carefully meditated and arranged than they appeared. In this story, the protagonist, a writer (again), visits his old high school English teacher, who is dying in a hospice. The old fellow can’t speak much, but he remembers his visitor and asks to be told a story. The protagonist obliges, and tells him a very short story, recognizably like the shorts in “Voices of Love” and “Long Story Short.” The story is disturbing, hurtful, misanthropic, and the sick old man is shocked. The next day the narrator returns and tells him another such story, and another. It’s intimated that in fact the teacher may have hurt the narrator badly way back when — we’re left to guess just how — and these hurtful stories are a deliberate and cruel revenge.

The narrator doesn’t just tell his old teacher stories like this, though. He does so to everyone he meets, sometimes muddling fact and fiction in a quite deliberate way, like a pathological liar who can’t help any of it. And he goes on tormenting his old teacher with cruel stories.

My opinion of the collection ticked upward with this last story, because it made me do what only a few of others had done: it made me think, or more exactly, it made me wonder. Is Theroux somehow placing himself in relation to us, his readers, as he placed the protagonist in his last story in relationship to the man who presumably hurt him somehow? Did he hammer us with those arch, mean-spirited stories not because he didn’t know what we has doing, but because he was acting out some hurt? Did he intend for me to wonder exactly this?

I don’t know. Maybe. If so, I find the whole thing more an exhausting psychoanalytic episode than a pleasurable few days of reading. These stories wore me out.

What About The Reviews?

I try not to read reviews of books before writing my own. But I did note that the back cover of the book lists some of the following “praise for Paul Theroux”:

Brilliantly evocative.

… a splendid eye for detail and the telling gesture …

Few writers … have managed to create … a voice so unified, so unwavering, so unmistakable.

[Theroux] has set his stories in many and various locations, never losing a travel writer’s eye for the hard, clear material detail of the world around him.

Hmm. Let it be noted that “praise for Paul Theroux” may or may not be praise for this particular book. Publishers like to mix and match sometimes. Regardless, nothing above tells me anyone fell in love with Theroux’s characters or his stories. It is, if you will, the material qualities of the prose that are praised, the variety of the materials. Rather as though a painter were praised for her vigorous brushstrokes, her impeccable handling of canvas. Praise nearly as faint as the three-degree background radiation.

Let’s look around for some other reviews. The New York Times forgives, the collection, if you will, by saying that this is just how the author is. But the reviewertales-unexpected, like others, notes the relentlessly unforgiving darkness, and the periodic descent into caricature.

The review from Booklist perhaps most closely mirrors my own reaction.

A warning to short story aficionados is in order, though. They should not expect the usual warmth that commonly emanates from contemporary short fiction …

Indeed.

The Long and The Short

Theroux’s collection reads more like a set of modern Tales of the Unexpected — both the DC Comic of that name, and Roald Dahl’s collections of stories for grown-ups. Some of Dahl’s stories do have a whiff of the bitter unfunniness of this collection, but there’s humor more often than not in Dahl, however black — and an absence of the tourism and voyeurism that mark this collection. (I couldn’t help also thinking of Avedon’s photos for In the American West, which I still regard as a form of pornography).

Many of these stories wouldn’t have been a surprise coming from Peter Straub or Stephen King — unlikely that they would have been accepted as quite “serious” writing in such a case, though.