BLINDING LIGHT

Paul Theroux

         Paul Theroux is not an author to underplay a useful motif. In the first paragraph of his new novel, we find a planeful of passengers settled down for a night flight in their sleep-masks. No sooner have they arrived at their destination – Ecuador – than the protagonist, Slade Steadman, and his lover Ava Katsina embark on an erotic game of blind man’s buff; and when, shortly afterwards, they set off along a jungle river to experience a Secoya drug ceremony, their guide insists on covering their eyes with strips of cloth.
     But blindness, voluntary or involuntary, is only half of the equation in a book which veers between the inspired and the exasperating. For Theroux lack of sight is, para­doxically, a means of illumination: Steadman’s journey to the heart of darkness is also a journey to the heart of light.
     Steadman is the reclusive author of an extraordinarily successful travel book, whose sales and spin-offs have made him more money than he knows what to do with. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to write anything since. By signing up for an illicit ‘drug tour’, he hopes to collect enough material for a novel, but to his frustration he finds five other travellers on the same expedition – two well-heeled couples and a creepy, wheedling German botanist called Manfred. When the Secoya ceremony finally takes place, the majority declare themselves cheated; Steadman, however, experiences a moment of revelation and, egged on by Manfred, decides to try an even stronger drug – datura – which will change his life.
     Blinding Light is divided into five parts, of which this, the first, is the most satisfactory. Theroux’s powers of description are as impressive as ever, and the journey through Ecuador includes some wonderfully conjured scenes: a frontier town ‘smelling of blackened pots and stale bread and frying and decay’; a brothel situated beside an abattoir; and the river, full of shapes ‘soaked in the foetid stink of fear, the musty forest-hum of an old corpse softening to the sludge of vegetable mulch’.
     This first episode is also beautifully plotted, with Steadman perversely using his enlightenment to revenge himself on his travelling companions. But there is one false note which becomes increasingly irritating: Theroux’s bizarrely unconvincing portrayal of one of the tourists, an English interior decorator whose vocabulary seems to be borrowed from Billy Bunter. ‘Yoo-roop!’ she exclaims at one point. ‘Oh, crikey!’
     The second part of the book is quite different. Steadman, back home in Martha’s Vineyard with a large stash of datura, dictates his novel to Ava under its influence: dictates, because the drug’s Mephistophelean trade-off is that it leaves the user temporarily blind. But Steadman is unworried, finding his other senses so enhanced that he is able to cope as well as if he could see. Emboldened, he starts to accept the invitations he once refused, and is even taken up by President Clinton, who – Steadman’s heightened perception tells him – is living in the shadow of a terrible indiscretion which threatens to undo him. This mixture of fictitious and living characters (the others include William Styron and Walter Cronkite) is Blinding Light’s second major irritant. Not only does it read like gimmicky name-dropping, but Steadman’s brilliant analysis of Clinton is largely invali­dated by being written with the benefit of hindsight.
     The Lewinski affair is also significant because Steadman’s book is ‘a sexual confession in the form of a novel’, and much of Blinding Light itself is devoted to the lubricious description of lustful encounters. Theroux is at pains to justify this, arguing that sex is both ‘the truest expression of our being’ and a more effective basis for a relationship than love (which is unstable) or marriage (which engenders a bored familiarity). And yet it is remarkable how little his characters’ peccadilloes really tell us about them, while for instruction on sexual power struggles one would do far better to look to D.H. Lawrence.
     The remaining sections of the novel take us in yet another direction, as Steadman, promoting his novel in New York, feels the benefits of the drug begin to fade, and – facing the prospect of permanent blindness – descends into an infernal world where he is at the mercy of unseen tormentors. Theroux masterfully evokes the sweaty, grimy metropolis, and Steadman’s terrible sense of helplessness, before bringing his odyssey to a perfectly pitched end.
     Overall, Blinding Light offers more enjoyment than annoyance, and its precise descriptions of tripping should make it a fixture in the canon of hallucinogenic literature. But, like one of those bending buses which are the terror of London street corners, it is an unwieldy vehicle. Somewhere inside its multitudinous, oversexed pages there is a slim, thrilling volume trying to get out.

 

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