Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The New Yorker: "The Lower River" by Paul Theroux

In the Contributors’ Notes we learn that Paul Theroux has work of fiction, “A Dead Hand,” forthcoming, but we are not told whether this story, “The Lower River,” is an excerpt (or an extraction, to more accurately describe what TNY often does with novels). In fact, though, A Dead Hand is set in Calcutta, and as far as I can tell the current story has nothing to do with it. Good.

This is the story of Altman, a former volunteer teacher who is returning to Malawi many years later—after his life has crumbled. (Theroux himself was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi.) He remembers the customs and the superstitions, so when he arrives, the village where he’d lived seems familiar, but he soon realizes that it has changed. The people he knew are dead, although he doesn’t reflect on this for long, and the new people who greet him seem to be the grandchildren of the village elders from long ago. He is treated, at least superficially, like a chief. Meanwhile, the actual chief, a young man who once was a driver for an NGO, uses the language of international development—agenda and pipeline and so on—to drain Altman’s cash from him. And Altman attempts to use the people’s fear of snakes to manipulate them, as he did years ago. But Altman contracts malaria, his money disappears, and he sinks deeper into the village. His “agenda” is forgotten, his dream of helping the village abandoned.

Although this story is intriguing and well written, and very suspenseful, it is typical of the reason I’ve given up on Theroux and no longer buy or read his books. Particularly in his non-fiction, but also in his fiction, his condescension toward the developing world is generally in evidence. Here, the entire village is out to swindle Altman, and I suspect that Theroux views all of Africa that way, and probably considers it inevitable. I do not know Africa, but I do know Asia, and I know that Theroux has written about Asia in similar terms. I recognize that this is fiction, and that it actually could happen in the way this story describes, but I see this as Theroux’s indictment of international development—-and I happen to think he’s wrong. And while Theroux has traveled a great deal, I've seen development from a professional angle.

September 14, 2009: “The Lower River” by Paul Theroux


Hobie said...

I have not yet read the story in question, but this reminds me of the movie "Local Hero." Except the "natives" in that story were rather humorous and not viciously venal. When they didn't get what they wanted, they returned to their lives much as before and enjoyed their lives. It's a lovely movie - I feel as though I've visited Scotland each time I see that film.

However, it sounds like Theroux holds his characters in contempt and attempts to stereotype them. I find that arrogant and contemptible in the extreme.

Clifford Garstang said...

Arrogance is the word, all right.

Paul Epstein said...


What is the difference between an "extraction" and an "excerpt"? I would have thought they were synonyms.

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Extraction is when you have your tooth pulled--it's a far more painful process. Hah. But seriously, "extraction" isn't really a term that anyone uses but me, and I coined it when I compared Don DeLillo's story in TNY a couple of years ago that was from his novel The Falling Man. Instead of taking a chapter that is more or less stand-alone, which is what I think of as an excerpt, TNY editors pulled a single thread out of the book (a little here, a little there), and assembled it as a story (DeLillo didn't do this work, as I understand it, but must have cooperated). That's what I refer to as an extract.

Daniel said...

I thought the story was excellent. It's the most compelling piece of fiction I've read in a long time.
You are right though, it does reflect a cynical world view.

Anonymous said...

As a story, though, I thought it was very good. And sad. It's stayed with me for days. The ending, in particular, is just right.

F. Escobar said...

I do agree that there is some condescension here toward the so-called third world, but Altman is also silently criticized for basking in what he foolishly interprets as natural and easygoing praise. I agree that the ending is quite good, though. And I thought the story as a whole (read independently of Theroux's possible caricatures of the developing world elsewhere) was great. Compelling, to use a word so usual in blurbs.

As an aside, I thought your thoughts here about extractions and excerpts were illuminating. (You have broached this subject in other posts, too.) TNY does fiction great disservice by turning to extracts so often. Did you see that one of those extracts, slightly embellished, even made it to the BASS 2009? (I'm referring to Daniel Alarcón's story in TNY ["The Idiot President"], which is an excerpt from an unfinished novel, as he admits in the BASS endnotes.)

Julie said...

I found the story an excellent exploration of the motives behind working in the developing world having spent over a year doing so in East Africa. Though cynical as Theroux usually is, I felt the focus was more on Altman's self absorption and misunderstandings of his place in this different culture than a statement of some contempt for the natives. Instead he shows how the simple village life of the past has changed with the intrusion of the new colonists and aid workers in the region each with their own motivation. The best interests or needs of the local people are at best not understood or at worst not considered.