What the Imagination Knows: Paul Theroux's Search for the Second Self

By Wheeler, Edward T. | Commonweal, May 20, 1994 | Go to article overview

What the Imagination Knows: Paul Theroux's Search for the Second Self


Wheeler, Edward T., Commonweal


At the close of his best-selling travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), Paul Theroux reflects that "...the difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is purejoy...." In emphasizing recording and discovering, in making fidelity to the truth a standard for the writer, Theroux has obligingly provided a way of discussing his own work. He is a realist in the same sense that painters are representational; he offers us something recognizably human and does not disrupt fictional conventions in doing this. The characters and incidents of his travel books could find themselves (and frequently do) in his novels. And yes, his fiction is joy, but certainly not "pure" in the Sixth Commandment sense of the word.

Theroux was born in 1941 in Medford, Massachusetts, one of seven children of a French-Canadian and Italian Catholic family. In his essay collection Sunrise with Seamonsters he tells us of his happy home life, his indifferent high school education ("I was a punk"), his large, extended family, and of a father who happily invited Paul's many friends, rechristening them "Jack," into the family. (The scenes he recounts of the family's summer house on Cape Cod show a warmth which should caution anyone who wishes to read the seemingly confessional novel, My Secret History, as an autobiography.) He went on to the University of Massachusetts and, since "[he] distrusted anyone who had not traveled," soon found his way as a college teacher to Africa and then, five years later, to Singapore and finally to London, where he started the trek by train that was to become The Great Railway Bazaar. He has been traveling from London, often to Cape Cod and a house which brings him near to his family, ever since. When in 1985 the successful Theroux looked back at his early career he saw "incompleteness... being outside the current of society" as a motive driving him to a life as a writer. He admits, "For years I felt that being respectable meant maintaining a sinister complacency and the disreputable freedom I sought helped make me a writer."

Paul Theroux at fifty-three has written twenty-nine books, more than one a year from the time he started to publish. This prodigious output can be divided roughly into fiction and travel books; the fiction seems to follow the travel, at least for locale and incident. There are the Africa books, the Singapore books, and United Kingdom books. His reputation was made, however, not by the fiction but by The Great Railway Bazaar and consolidated (as a travel writer) by five succeeding works. The novel, The Mosquito Coast (1982), transformed into a feature film, gave him the final push into international standing, confirmed by O-Zone (1986), My Secret History (1989), Chicago Loop (1991), and Millroy the Magician (1994). His fiction ranges as widely as his travel; we find a futuristic dystopia touching its end covers with a children's book, tales of murder in the Midwest next to trials of a Chinese merchant in Africa, expatriates all over the shelf, and, ultimately, first-rate story-telling.

Few can resist Theroux the genial traveler. The pleasures of rereading The Great Railway Bazaar are great, especially since his route in 1974 took him through what is now a very different political landscape. Yugoslavia, Iran, the Soviet Union appear from the other side of a historical dividing line; and we read with the wisdom of hindsight. Theroux sets his own high standard for travel, associating it with inconvenience, danger, bad food, sleepless nights, and sees his success as a function of providing that experience vicariously for the reader.

Indeed few people could or would hazard what he encounters. His ability to capture landscape, his eye for architectural detail, and his unfailing willingness to engage his fellow passengers make us want to travel through him, if not with him.

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