Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Open Letter to Robert MacFarlane

November 11, 2009

Robert MacFarlane

Emmanuel College

Oxford, England

Dear Dr. MacFarlane,

I have a complicated appreciation of Paul Theroux, which is why I read with eager anticipation your review of the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I must admit, I have not read any of your works. But you seem like someone with whom I’d get along. You have a rich appreciation, and far superior knowledge, of literature, yet an equal appreciation for the remnants of underexplored nature in developed societies. However, because of the disdain and repulsion with which you rejected Theroux’s latest bestseller, I felt compelled to write this letter.

What bothers you most about Paul Theroux is his abhorrent pomposity. Without question, Theroux is a writer imbued with supreme confidence. Yet, Theroux readily admits, he has not had a happy life – or at least he hadn’t until The Great Railway Bazaar brought him fame and fortune. And so, the egotism with which he writes can best be described as astonished pride in his own work. Yet, I feel as if you fail to appreciate the subtlety of this confidence. It’s not a boastful confidence, but more of an amazed, reflective appreciation of what he has accomplished. Establishing this subtle character trait is critical because it allows the reader to connect with and get past Theroux’s arrogance – which is continuous – and appreciate the true value of his work.

You highlight the many shortcomings of the Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Theroux is lazy, generalizing, simplistic, stereotypical, and above all refuses to get off the train. And you are exactly correct in all of these assaults. But these shortcomings are also what make Theroux’s work so enticing and captivating – much to my own chagrin.

When Theroux arrives in a country, he records his immediate prognoses and condescending judgments of the landscape before him. And yes, these are always simplified, lacking nuance, and overly generalized. But they are exactly what every traveler does the instant he encounters a new horizon. Theroux quotes Mark Twain upon his arrival in Istanbul who similarly generalized, stereotyped and conjured up thoughts and images that fit his preconceived notions about the inhabitants of Constantinople.

Theroux’s “banalities masquerading as profundities” are what the armchair traveler covets the most in a travel memoir – the ruminations that run through a newly landed traveler. Whole books could be, and have been, written about the arriver’s first thoughts and feelings. Theroux’s ability to capture these invective penetrations consumes the reader and satisfies Theroux disciples again and again.

Ghost Train also snags the reader because Theroux finally becomes an introspective traveler – which the reader desires after its absence in Theroux’s earlier works. You write sarcastically that Theroux’s discovery that he, more than the cities through which he has passed, has changed the most in the thirty years that has elapsed since he last traveled this route. And while you rebuke Theroux’s explanation, this insight into the author's psyche is yet another example of why the armchair traveler loves to follow along with Theroux – because he sees himself sitting across from the narrator as he scribbles away on the night train to Bombay.

Besides his banalities, Theroux’s “less interesting details” also help transport the armchair traveler into central Asia or backwater Burma. The precise dialogue he captures and the rich descriptions of the individuals and cities that cross his radar are unparalleled in their ability to satiate the appetite of the wannabe traveler reading along at home. Which is why I love Paul Theroux. No – that’s a lie.

I must confess, it actually took me five tries to get through my first Paul Theroux book. Mosquito Cost was my first purchase, and I still haven’t read it. And when I do sit down to tackle a Theroux masterpiece (Ghost Train, Railway Bazaar, Dark Star Safari), I find myself turning the pages quickly, eagerly, but not devouring every word that passes through my fingers. Your review is exactly correct; while Railway Bazaar opened the world to millions including hundreds of “upstart punks,” Theroux’s later works are frustrating in their oscillations between mendacity and poetry. And these undulations are why I have enjoyed Ghost Train so much, because I listen to it as I traverse the streets of Washington D.C. on my bicycle. I’m continually drawn in to Theroux’s rich descriptions – his reunion with Mr. Bernard’s son in Thailand – but I can also daydream whole pages away without any pangs of guilt. Paul Theroux’s work fulfils the ADD imbued, aspiring travel writer that I am.

Until I read your review earlier this week, I had no problem drifting, for hours, in and out of Ghost Train. But your review elicited in me an anger I have not felt since my sophomore English teacher leveled praise upon Catcher in the Rye. Now, every time I turn on Ghost Train, your voice clangs in my head – “How can you suffer through such ‘intellectually intolerable’ platitudes?” You penetrated my happy appreciation of Paul Theroux with such precision and directness, that I couldn’t let it go. But I’m not going to let you win either.

I’m going to continue to read Ghost Train, but only on my bike where I can ruminate about my own travel ambitions, without relying on a washed-up, bitter old man to transport me across the world. And who knows, as I continue to ride my bike, I might just keep riding, and riding until I find myself across the world – a young, “opportunistic punk,” with my own nonsensical generalizations filling books and making millions. If so, I’ll have Paul Theroux to thank. Thank you for disturbing my peaceful, yet discomforting, appreciation of this complicated writer.


Dan Stevens

P.S. You know what “Poor Pico Iyer” thought of this book: “Brilliant.”