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Paul (Edward) Theroux Biography

Paul Theroux comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Medford, Massachusetts, 1941; brother of Alexander Theroux, q.v. Education: Medford High School; University of Maine, Orono, 1959-60; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, B.A. in English 1963. Career: Lecturer, University of Urbino, Italy, 1963; Peace Corps lecturer, Soche Hill College, Limbe, Malawi, 1963-65; lecturer, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, 1965-68, and University of Singapore, 1968-71; writer-in-residence, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1972. Awards: Playboy award, 1971, 1977, 1979; American Academy award, 1977; Whitbread award, 1978; Yorkshire Post award, 1982; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1982; Thomas Cook award, for travel book, 1989. D. Litt.: Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, 1980; Trinity College, Washington, D.C., 1980; University of Massachusetts, 1988. Member: Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, and Royal Geographical Society; American Academy, 1984.



Waldo. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1967; London, Bodley Head, 1968.

Fong and the Indians. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1968; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1976.

Girls at Play. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Bodley Head, 1969.

Murder in Mount Holly. London, Ross, 1969.

Jungle Lovers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Bodley Head, 1971.

Saint Jack. London, Bodley Head, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

The Black House. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, HoughtonMifflin, 1974.

The Family Arsenal. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Picture Palace: A Novel. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

The Mosquito Coast. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1981; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Doctor Slaughter. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984.

Half Moon Street: Two Short Novels (includes Doctor Slaughter andDoctor DeMarr). Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

O-Zone. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Putnam, 1986.

My Secret History. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Putnam, 1989.

Doctor DeMarr. London, Hutchinson, 1990.

Chicago Loop. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1990; New York, Random House, 1991.

Millroy the Magician. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1993; New York, Random House, 1994.

My Other Life. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Kowloon Tong. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

The Collected Short Novels. London, Penguin Books, 1999.

Short Stories

Sinning with Annie and Other Stories. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975.

The Consul's File. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, HoughtonMifflin, 1977.

World's End and Other Stories. London, Hamish Hamilton, andBoston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

The London Embassy. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

The Collected Stories. New York, Viking, 1997.


The Autumn Dog (produced New York, 1981).

The White Man's Burden. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.


Saint Jack, with Peter Bogdanovich and HowardSackler, 1979.

Television Play:

The London Embassy, from his own story, 1987.


V.S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work. London, Deutsch, and New York, Africana, 1972.

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia. London, HamishHamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

A Christmas Card (for children). London, Hamish Hamilton, andBoston, Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

London Snow (for children). Salisbury, Wiltshire, Russell, 1979;Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Sailing Through China. Salisbury, Wiltshire, Russell, 1983; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964-1984. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

The Imperial Way: Making Tracks from Peshawar to Chittagong, photographs by Steve McCurry. London, Hamish Hamilton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Patagonia Revisited, with Bruce Chatwin. Salisbury, Wiltshire, Russell, 1985; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

The Shortest Day of the Year: A Christmas Fantasy. Leamington, Warwickshire, Sixth Chamber Press, 1986.

Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China. London, HamishHamilton, and New York, Putnam, 1988.

Travelling the World. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1990.

The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific. London, HamishHamilton, and New York, Putnam, 1992.

The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean. NewYork, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.

Down the Yangtze. London, Penguin, 1995.

Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, 1985-2000. Boston, HoughtonMifflin, 2000.


(1986) Both in my fiction and non-fiction I have tried to write about the times in which I have lived. Although I have been resident in various countries for the past 25 years, and these countries have been the settings for my books, I consider myself an American writer. I have a strong homing instinct.

* * *

In his note to My Other Life, Paul Theroux writes that the book is "the story of a life I could have lived had things been different—an imaginary memoir." This brief statement could summarize a general paradox that drives the overwhelming majority of Theroux's acclaimed novels and short stories, as well as his immensely popular travel accounts: a person can only discover and comment on "the self" by taking on the role of a stranger. In fact, encounters with the "strange," both within and outside of the self, transform all of Theroux's narrators into travelers of sorts. Mingling the Gothic with the journalistic and the psychological with the geographical, Theroux blends the distant past with the distant present to comment on human nature, racism, colonialism, cultural identity, alienation from the natural world, and the hypocrisy of civilization. Like the author himself, the most compelling characters and settings in Theroux's novels seem to balance two identities—fiction and fact, sacred and secular, foreign and familiar, past and present, strange and mundane.

In both his fiction and nonfiction, Paul Theroux estranges the familiar by positioning Western (British and America) characters as outsiders in a foreign society or transforming Western landscapes into unfamiliar dystopias. Whether he is moving the New Englander to the Honduran Mosquito Coast, recounting his own journeys in his many travel narratives, or laying out an alien-infested O-Zone, he is fascinated by people and places who are out of sync.

In Saint Jack, Jack Flowers is an American expatriate who addresses the pathos and puzzlement of being an outsider in Singapore. Kowloon Tong, set against the backdrop of Hong Kong's reunification with China, features British expatriate Neville "Blunt" Mullard. Like Heather Monkhouse in Girls at Play, he seeks a Western lifestyle in a non-Western country. Although he was born in the colony and barely knows England, he lives a British lifestyle that is insulated from the Chinese culture around him (except for his visits to local "blue hotel" prostitutes and an affair with one of his employees). Both novels, one written early in Theroux's career and one written very recently, dislocate their Western characters to expose a common dilemma: their nostalgic constructions of Occidentalism are only at home when the characters are abroad.

In a novel like O-Zone, Theroux positions individual outsiders/strangers within an estranged landscape that stresses the alienating effects of technology and a separation from nature. The story follows seven wealthy couples and a boy living in 21-century America as they encounter literal aliens—Skells, Starkies, Trolls, Diggers, and Roaches—during a New Year's Eve holiday in The Outer Zone. In this dystopic future New York, civilization has proved unfriendly and residents are afraid to leave their fortress-like homes. Traveling in a strange, brutal, and primitive Missouri outback, the mixed bag of characters once again address duplicitous identities, culture clashes, and the introspective process of traveling outside metaphorical safety zones of all kinds.

In creating such dystopias, Theroux dislocates entire Western social structures and landscapes. The Family Arsenal follows American consul Valentine Hood through the strange and violent dynamics of an East London terrorist underground.

In the Mosquito Coast, megalomaniac Allie Fox decides to start a utopic new life in Honduras, away from the corruption of modern America. In a forced estrangement from civilization and materialism, he moves his wife and four children from Hatfield, Massachusetts, to a remote clearing on the Mosquito Coast, where their quest for paradise quickly leads to apocalyptic destruction. Like the wizard Millroy in Millroy the Magician—who embarks on an odyssey through America, preaching the wisdom of a whole food diet and performing magic tricks for an awestruck crowd—Allie Fox invents himself as a messiah and prophet against the backdrop of corrupt[ing] fast-food-addicted society. Both men seem bigger than life, embodying myth and history, salvation and destruction, illusion and reality.

Theroux also uses traditional Gothicism to achieve a sense of discomfort and uncertainty, as in Girls at Play and The Black House. In the first novel, a horrific chain of events forces characters to abandon their illusions about themselves. In the second, spectral illusions make the characters' surroundings seem horrific. Girls at Play revolves around three women in East Africa: Miss Poole, the headmistress of a girls' school; Heather Monkhouse, a promiscuous salesgirl from Croydon who dreams of being a high-class call girl; and Bettyjean Lebow, a naïve American from the Peace Corps. Black/white, East/West, male/female, civilized/savage collide as the women are faced with alien landscapes, vanishings, recurring nightmares, rape, and murder. In The Black House, anthropologist Alfred Munday returns to Dorset, England, after ten years in Uganda, where he "lived closely with an alien people," only to find a ghostly "foreigner" in his own house. Munday has an affair with an apparition, Caroline, who occasionally possesses the body of his wife, Emma; he uses the local church hall for lectures on African circumcision ceremonies and weaponry; and the once separate worlds of England and Africa begin to blur and reflect each other. Recalling Sam Fong in Fong and the Indians, Calvin Muller and Marais in Jungle Lovers, and the three women in Girls at Play, Munday is the ultimate outsider. He is out of joint in both time and place, realizing that the balance between seemingly solid and disparate points in geography, history, and psychology is tenuous as best.

The conflicting forces in these novels—Western and Eastern, order and chaos, white and black, past and present, history and fantasy—also speak to the importance of some fundamental duality in each of Theroux's novels. This duality can be absolutely literal, as in the characters' double lives in My Secret History and Chicago Loop, or come through more subtly in the divided lives for characters like Maude Coffin Pratt in Picture Palace and the fictional Paul Theroux of My Other Life.

On the one hand, My Secret History traces the double life of Andre Parent—writer, traveler, and lover of women—through an all-American boyhood, libertinism in Africa, a dangerous secret life, marriage, and self-analysis. Similarly, Chicago Loop explores the double life of successful Chicago businessman Parker Jagoda, who is a health-conscious suburban model of propriety by day and a sexual serial killer in the city by night. Both novels recall the earlier Half Moon Street, which combines two novellas on the theme of double identity: Doctor Slaughter (set in England) and Doctor DeMarr (set in America). Doctor Slaughter is a research fellow in political sciences and part-time prostitute; Dr. Marr is a man who takes over the identity of his murdered twin brother. In each case, the duality of the characters reflects Theroux's literary preoccupation with identity and alienation.

In books like Picture Palace: A Novel, on the other hand, the duality is more complicated. At age seventy, world-famous photographer Maude Coffin Pratt travels through her past as she rummages through her life's work. Theroux uses her recollections, which exist somewhere between the past and the present, to address, once again, issues of paradoxical double identity. In fact, in a conversation with T.S. Eliot, Maude compares herself to Tiresias from The Waste Land—"throbbing between two lives"—to express her position between the estranged, fictional, visual world of her photographs and the mundane, factual, blind world in which she lives. Throughout her narrative, Pratt's incestuous desire for her brother, who prefers their sister, and her psychosomatic blindness again interrogate the recurring dynamics of sexual desire, perception, and reality.

Further complicating this idea of double identity, the fictional narrator (named Paul Theroux) in My Other Life recalls scenes that are similar to the ones from the author's biography, as he begins the story as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Africa. Like the author, the narrator writes books titled The Great Railway Bazaar and The Mosquito Coast, teaches in Singapore, lives in London with his wife and children, and moves back to Massachusetts later in his life. Yet, Theroux blends fiction and nonfiction to estrange his own familiar biography and expose our presumptions about the two genres. In setting up this alter-ego, Theroux also hearkens back to the two white characters in Jungle Lovers—Calvin Mullet, a divorced insurance agent from Massachusetts, and Marais, a revolutionary intent on overthrowing a corrupt fascist regime—who were, according to Theroux, "two opposing sides of [his] own personality." Like these characters, the fictional Theroux of My Other Life balances the author's contradictory impulses for security and upheaval, revealing the complicated relationship between autobiography, fiction, art, and reporting.

Like his travel narratives, Theroux's novels familiarize readers with the strange and violent. They interrogate arbitrary and capricious divisions in the modern world, and they blur the lines that define our assumptions about the city and the jungle, beauty and savagery, Self and Other.

—Christine Roth

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