In lieu of a memoir, acclaimed, prolific travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux brings us a work of fiction narrated by a (sometimes) acclaimed and (often the result of accounts due) prolific writer who decides not to write a memoir. “I imagined the book’s appearance. My life would be reviewed by envious hacks, bitter academics and ambitious young writers. I knew – I had been all of these people in my career. The summation of my life: ‘Some good parts, lots of boring parts, wasted time – on the whole, a mediocre life. Not recommended.’”
There is something distinctly passive-aggressive about this fictionalised rejection of an attempt to write the truth. Theroux, writing here in the persona of Jay Justus, knows that his good parts have been very good, and that boring is a relative concept when you’ve roamed the world for decades. Sure, now you’re verging on broke and holed up in a mildly entropic corner of Cape Cod (Jay rather than Paul, who pings between Massachusetts and Hawaii when not on farther-flung trips), but this deliberately downbeat assessment of imaginary others’ assessment seems an act of projection and self-protection too far.
But this is in the service of Mother Land’s greater aim, which is to describe the myriad ways that Jay’s mother has suppressed his confidence, altered the course of his life, and waged a lifelong war against either him and his siblings developing a sense of themselves as settled, affectionate, functioning adult humans. Even her late husband, whose death kickstarts the novel, was so alienated from the reality of his life that he developed an alter ego, the minstrel in blackface who was the subject of Theroux’s short story Mr Bones.
“Mother” – she is never named, her family of origin and pre-marital life sketched so lightly as to suggest a wilful, defiant incuriosity – is almost without redeeming features: spiteful, devious, petty, mean, treacherous. Maybe her most damaging characteristic is her ability to foster division among her six children (the seventh, Angela, died in infancy and is therefore venerated), whose squabbles, estrangements and reconciliations are constantly being reconfigured in new patterns. Her methods of control – frequently likened by Jay to those of a brutal dictator – rely on constant wrong-footing, the capricious dispersal and withholding of favours and rewards, the sudden thump of a punishment, usually undeserved. Her ends are obscure, and are perhaps simply the pursuit and retention of power.
For Jay, Mother’s aggressions have ranged from the immense – a brutal lack of sympathy and support when he fathers a child in his youth, virtual disinheritance as she leaves property and money to others – to the comically tiny. When she tells Jay that she can’t read his latest book because it isn’t in large print like all the bestsellers, it is a paper-cut of derision. That he comes home from visits to her house with a bag of crumbling “hermits” – dull-sounding cookies – as others waltz off with cottages and cars contributes, as his brother Floyd notes, to the sense of the Oresteia rewritten as farce. (Floyd, by the way, is no slouch himself, writing an eight-page hatchet job of his brother’s work, just as Theroux’s brother Alexander did.)
One can read Mother Land, then, in a state of appalled fascination, the transgression of full-on family hatred licensed, but also safely displaced on to another family. The portraits of Mother’s children, themselves ageing and succumbing to illness as she lives on past a century in fine fettle, are especially well done, and the novel’s climax, with its hints of an inversion of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, are sharp and subtle.
But it’s also a phenomenally strange novel, maybe one of the most repetitive I’ve ever read, with words (indirection, teasing, frugal), accusations and anecdotes recurring to the point of fatigue. Is this an echo of the nature of family life, of our ability to nurse grudges and fuel hobbyhorses, or just writerly indiscipline? Is Theroux evoking a son’s obsessive quest for his mother’s love, or is he fantastically unaware of her as a person who exists outside of him? Mother Land, despite its author’s fondness for an anthropological stance, does not allow us to see: but perhaps it never could.
• Mother Land by Paul Theroux is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99