cover image My Other Life

My Other Life

Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $24.95 (464pp) ISBN 978-0-395-82527-3

Theroux has previously played with the identity of a novel's protagonist (in My Secret History), but this time his work is considerably more personal and entertaining, if less profound. It is in effect a fictionalized memoir in which the stages of his life are tellingly illuminated by what amount to a succession of brilliant short stories. Certain themes recur throughout: the narrator is constantly about to be seduced by determined but unsuitable women from whom he retreats at the last moment; he is always reminding himself of the fragile but oddly intimate relationship between writer and reader; and he bears an agonizing sense of exile from an everyday, quietly satisfying domestic existence he seems to cherish but can never attain (hence his compulsive travels). The line between fiction and reminiscence is deliberately and skillfully blurred, so that such choice episodes as a disastrous dinner party held to introduce Anthony Burgess to a lifelong fan, and another (for which Theroux crosses the Atlantic specially) that stars a very convincing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, are at once triumphs of comic realism and of dark fantasy. Did he really meet an obscure German writer whose life and work seemed exactly to parallel his own? An Australian reporter he had once dismissed with a slighting line in a book, only to find she was a more seasoned and knowledgeable traveler than he? A seductive murderess in a remote Yorkshire coastal cottage? A louche London socialite who transformed Theroux's career before moving on, rapaciously, to another young writer victim? It doesn't matter. The book is so vividly compelling--and melancholy--as to remind a reader once more of how hugely talented--though, alas, sometimes uneven--a writer Theroux can be. First serial to the New Yorker and Granta; BOMC selection; author tour. (Sept.)