By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
To be a novelist, the novelist Paul Theroux tells me, it helps to suffer from "confusion, dysfunction, something problematical." It helps to be "a little disturbed."
Paul Theroux does not look disturbed. He looks, as you might expect, very much the international traveler, purposeful, competent and vaguely rich. A man who belongs nowhere but crops up everywhere. One day he's floating down the Zambezi River, the next he's in a supermarket in Honolulu, pulling down two cans of deodorant for a dwarf who can't reach the top shelf. That dwarf, he says, reminds him of the character in "The Potato Elf," Nabokov's short story. "Nabokov's a dangerous writer to read," Theroux says, "because of the style." Like his former mentor (and the subject of his latest book), V.S. Naipaul, Theroux believes that writing "must be transparent. A novel mustn't be a display of style."
Sitting on the terrace of Shutters on the Beach, a hotel in Santa Monica, the 57-year-old author of The Great Railway Bazaar, The Mosquito Coast and Kowloon Tong gazes candidly at the retreating figure of our waitress. "Pretty," he says, stirring a small cup of black coffee. Then he gets back to the subject at hand - his 35th book, and his second about Naipaul. The first, published in 1970 when Theroux was still struggling to make a name for himself, was a critical study of the prize-winning author of A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. The second, Sir Vidia's Shadow, is something much more complicated: an account of a 34-year-long friendship and its breakup; a description of a young writer's apprenticeship to an older writer; an intimate, poison-tipped portrait of one of contemporary literature's prickliest figures by a protege who now considers himself an equal. Because of its sensational subject matter, the book made headlines even before it was published.
"I'm getting very mixed reviews for this book," Theroux concedes, crossing one leg over the other and sticking his hand between his thighs. In sunglasses, white tennis shirt and stiff new blue jeans, he seems artfully anonymous, a man who knows, above all, how to blend in. "I don't know whether people are upset by it or what," he continues, "but it's touching people on some level, and some people object on a very deep level, I guess."
Theroux's puzzlement seems a bit disingenuous. Sir Vidia's Shadow is, in effect, an act of literary cannibalism - a unique instance of one writer eating another writer, cooking him over a slow fire for some 350 pages before finally devouring him in front of our eyes. That doesn't, of course, stop it from being extremely readable. It is in fact one of the best of Theroux's many excellent books.
The two men met in Uganda in 1963, when Theroux was a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer and apprentice writer. Naipaul was 34 and already a formidable novelist. An Indian who had grown up in Trinidad and now lived in London, he considered exile the great tragedy of his life. Their roles were defined at the outset. Theroux needed a mentor and Naipaul needed someone to show him round Uganda - thus they became partners, friends, even confidantes - but not equals. "Tell the truth," was Naipaul's blunt advice to his young protege, and Naipaul himself was known for his bluntness. "Sure of himself and very direct," Theroux writes, Naipaul "commanded attention. He strode through Kampala, assessing it all, 'being brutal,' as he said, like a man sent from headquarters to inspect a lagging field office. His conclusion: Mass sackings were called for."
Naipaul returned to London, and eventually, Theroux followed. Naipaul was helpful. He put him up, introduced him to his publisher, took him to dinner parties where he met some of the best-known writers in London. But Naipaul was less helpful in other ways. If they went somewhere in a taxi, Theroux paid. If they ate in a restaurant, Theroux picked up the check. ("People enjoy paying," Naipaul liked to say. "I don't want to spoil their pleasure.")
As subjects go, Naipaul is a dream. Brilliant, demanding and judgmental to the point of insanity, he dominates the book. The question is, should he be in the book? Should this be a book at all? Does the fact that Naipaul coldly broke off their friendship after 34 years justify Theroux's opportunism? "Until I wrote this book, I hadn't really analyzed the nature of friendship," Theroux says. "Friendship is a very pure thing . . . Friends don't manipulate each other. People are always leveling with each other as friends." They also, apparently, sit down and write books about each other the moment their friendship is over. Would Theroux welcome a "return" volume from Naipaul? "Oh, I'd love that!" he says, "but I don't think he'd have much to say. I don't think he noticed very much. It would be a pretty slim volume. Or maybe just a sour 10 pages."
I put it to Theroux that one reason why certain people are upset by his book is that, unlike Philip Roth, say, he has invaded someone else's privacy without being equally hard on himself.