MY OTHER LIFE:
By Paul Theroux
456 pages, $24.95
Paul Theroux, whose last name rhymes with review (and "cuckoo"), may be getting more of a reputation lately with the latter than the former noun. In his new "novel," Theroux mangles literary forms recklessly: the novel with autobiography, memoir with short story. Along the way he has thrown in a large dose of God knows whatever else, in this readable, gossipy, possibly packed-full-of-lies (what he might call "larger truths") and imaginative raconteur's velleities.
His defense is, "The act of writing made the word true." Does he care about what used to be called objective truth? Does anybody care? Hard questions these days. In the meantime, Theroux goes to the bank. After all, the guy has written so much (31 books). He has invented his own doppelganger in this work, Andreas Vorlaufer, who has written all the same works and had the same life experiences as Theroux, except that they take place in Germany. There is terminal cuteness here: Is it or isn't it Theroux who's involved in this latest masque de pen? The coyness cloys.
"My Other Life" appears to be a series of short subjects, leftover material that the author didn't fit into earlier books. "Uncle Hal's Other Life," the first piece, is about a cranky, nutty uncle and, from my point of view, displays the best writing in the book. There are other curios -- dinner at home with Anthony Burgess, which Theroux's former wife vouchsafes is mostly fantasy, dinner with the queen and Prince Philip at Mr. and Mrs. Laird Birdwood's residence.
I turned to see what the man was looking at and got a glimpse of a woman being introduced to a group of guests, and I knew from her diamonds and the size of her head that she was the queen.
"That reminds me, I must buy some stamps," I said.
The scene becomes ribald, with Theroux fantasizing about the queen's breasts. The description (not repeated here) has understandably incensed British readers livid with liberties taken by Theroux. No word from the royals. Toward the end of the dinner (this part can be included in a family newspaper) Theroux tells us that the queen recognizes his personal problems and loneliness from his divorce. She is supposed to have said to him:
"You will get nowhere if you simply moon around, feeling sorry for yourself." She tilted her head to scowl at me, and as she did so her defiant bosom swelled against the stiff gauze of her beaded dress, offering me a wink of cleavage. "What you want, young man, is purpose."
This fellow is difficult to admire. He doesn't love himself very much, notwithstanding his posing. In fact, he's so lonely at one point that he records writing himself a postcard: "Dear Paul, How are you? I haven't seen you lately. I hope to see you soon. Take care, Paul." He whines about his wife's wanting a divorce (and why wouldn't she? -- he has chased his psychiatrist and every other woman in the neighborhood), meowing, "What was the good of writing if all it ended in was a lonely man lying on the left side of the bed making sense of the cracks in the celling?" I must say, this speaks volumes, not for the weakness of the writing life, but for the weakness of the man writing.
The mere recounting of such baloney may seem like "looney toons" to the person not having read the book, but Theroux is very calculating. He doesn't confess anything to us that he doesn't want to develop into a heart-rending story that will culminate in our admiration of him as a wily fellow who uses his troubles to treble his art. Defending himself from the charge, he says: "Those who create are dysfunctional, incomplete, not housebroken." Maybe some are. Not all.
Theroux writes well. He's engrossing, gross and, ultimately, pitiful.