Articles & Reviews – Blinding Light by Paul Theroux

One of the many working definitions of late middle-age crisis would include that state in which men past a certain age are consumed with sexual fantasies involving much younger women and the concomitant centrality of, indeed obsession with, sex, its performance and frequency. Paul Theroux has reached that august stage of ripeness in his career. But in artists we don’t call it an ageing crisis, we call it a renewal of the creative wellsprings, for aren’t the sexual and creative drives interchangeable, different names for the same force? It is an incontrovertible and well-proven fact that there is a direct and positive correlation between how good you are in the sack and literary achievement. What about women, I hear a timid voice from the backbenches. Please don’t lower the tone; we’ll leave them in the margins, usefully employed as amanuenses and needy sex objects.

Now that we have nailed sex, let’s move on to drugs. A journey to the Ecuadorian jungle to have the mind-altering psychotropic drug ayahuasca administered to you by shamans of the Secoya tribe is absolutely imperative if you are a legendary one-book-wonder who has been unable to write anything for twenty years. In the process, you might even discover another more potent alkaloid that will grant you inner vision, prescience and wisdom, while making you blind. Then you smuggle out five kilos of that plant, brew it and sip it every morning in your secluded mansion in Martha’s Vineyard for inspiration, and have reams of your erotic masterpiece, The Book of Revelation, flow out of you and typed out by your not-quite-ex-girlfriend. And there’s kinky sex thrown in in the evenings as well (although I’m understating when I say that these sexy sections are about as erotic as congealing catsick).

Life couldn’t be better for our hero, Slade Steadman, except that this new drug has turned him blind. But no matter: the blindness has conferred True Insight on him. (At a posh clambake, where the guest of honour is Bill Clinton, he can even see into the President’s soul and read the Monica Lewinsky affair yet to be made public). And the lasting insights of this seer? One: sex is good and vital to creative sorts; two: everyone in the world, but everyone, except the mighty Steadman, is stupid, ugly, shallow and unenlightened. Page after tiresome page, this paradox of physical blindness and true vision is impressed with all the delicacy of a pneumatic drill. If this is ‘fresh magic out of the venerable intertwined themes of sight and insight’, as the dustjacket blurb glibly assures us, it’s of the rabbit-out-of-a-hat-on-children’s-telly variety. The pseudo-gnostic excesses, the language of healing and visionary insight, leave us in no doubt that Theroux is rewriting the Faust story for our times under the influence of William Burroughs. That he achieves only a tired, repetitive, overwritten and repugnant piece of sub-Lawrentian drivel is a matter of sadness because we get flashes of what he is really capable of when he makes his prose sing off the page, in miraculous drifts of poetry, in the sections on the Ecuadorian forests, the flora and the fauna, the Secoya Indians.

What has gone wrong with Theroux? Where is the Conradian edginess of The Mosquito Coast or the crystalline lucidity of his travel writing? Instead, a rancid bitterness infects the very heart of Blinding Light and seems to be its motivating energy. It is not cynicism, or misanthropy, which after all have given birth to masterpieces, but a sourness of an altogether smaller and pettier variety.