Friday, March 31, 2023

Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux

This is a book of miscellaneous short nonfiction; the double-barreled subtitle is "People & Places: Essays 2001-2016." And it is very miscellaneous, the collected work of more than a decade of occasional writings - introductions and magazine profiles and think pieces and "what does noted expert Theroux think about this thing" articles. For those who like variety, that's all good. For those trying to wrangle it into a single narrative and make grand statements, it's not so good.

Luckily, I'm much more of the former than the latter.

Figures in a Landscape follows Sunrise with Seamonsters and Fresh Air Fiend - presumably, if Theroux stays healthy and active, a fourth similar book will emerge around 2034, though he'd be in his early nineties at that point.

My sense - I've read in Fresh Air Fiend but not finished it, and I don't think I've found a copy of Seamonsters yet - is that this one is more literary and less travel-oriented than the previous books. The pieces here were written in Theroux's sixties and early seventies, the era when a notable writer is deluged with requests to write pieces introducing new editions, in this case of Simenon, Thoreau, Conrad, Maugham, and Bowles. He also does more rock-star journalism than I expected, with substantial profiles of Liz Taylor [1], Robin Williams and Oliver Sacks, plus a similar piece about a top Manhattan dominatrix (whom, characteristically, Theroux met on a trip in Africa).

There are some travel pieces, mostly about Africa, since this was the decade between Dark Star Safari and The Last Train to Zona Verde. There are also travel-esque pieces about places he's lived, particularly Hawaii, but also looking back to his times in Africa or commenting on the humanitarian-industrial complex (which he is not, as you might imagine, in favor of).

As always, I come to Theroux for his voice and viewpoint, which at its best feels like a smarter, better-informed and more authoritative version of the way I think myself:

Even my closest friends have seldom succeeded in exerting a malign influence on me. I am by nature pitch-averse, resistant to the selling mechanism. A persuasive sales pitch is no pitch at all, but rather something like a tremor that causes in me a distinct throb of aversion. Praise a product or a person to me, boost something or someone in my estimation, urge me to care deeply about a cause or a campaign, and my shit detector emits a high-pitched negative squeal that blorts in my head and sends me in the opposite direction.

("My Drug Tour: Searching for Ayahuasca," p.2)

I appreciate the way Theroux can be grumpy and clear-eyed simultaneously, deeply pessimistic (without ever being cynical) and yet admitting that there's always reason for optimism. The end of his introduction, about the work he has collected in this book, is characteristic:

As I write, magazines are closing, few television programs interview serious writers, and (apart from NPR) radio is mainly music and sports talk. The writing profession that I have always known is changing, old media is ossified, and what I know of new media is that it is casual, opinionated, improvisational, largely unedited, full of whoppers, often plagiarized, and poorly paid. But as I set this down, I feel I am probably wrong, confusing (as my son once wrote of old men) the end of my life with the end of civilization, and that it is fogeyish to disparage innovation, or to suggest in tones of astonishment that the barbarians are a the gate, because they have always been there, giving writers a reason to be vigilant, and unsparing, and fully employed.

(p. xvii)

I read Theroux for moments like that, for the way he can flow out at full force and immediately turn around and question his own premises. He's an unsparing writer in the best sense, in that the one he's least likely to spare is himself. Figures has several dozen examples of his work; I can't think of a better way to recommend it.

[1] Also including Michael Jackson, whom I never would have expected to see Theroux meet or write about.

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