Peace Corps Writers

Blinding Light

Blinding Light
A Novel

by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
Houghton Mifflin
May 2005
488 pages

Reviewed by Amy Mehringer (Cape Verde 1998–2000)

SLADE STEADMAN — yes, that’s really his name — lives in a very strange world. In thePrinter friendly version opening pages of Paul Theroux’s new novel Blinding Light, we meet Steadman, a blocked writer on his way to Ecuador on a mission to ingest drugs in the hopes of unblocking himself. The scenario itself is not all that extraordinary, but Steadman, who 20 years ago wrote “Trespassing” — a famously popular travel book — is surrounded by people sporting “Trespassing” travel gear:

Now he saw that the clothes on that woman behind him with his book on her lap were from the catalogue; and the man next to her, the others around her, all of them wore travel outfits bearing the TOG [Trespassing] logo . . ..

Steadman, it seems, is the center of the world.
     Chapter by chapter, Theroux develops Steadman’s world, from the Ecuadorian countryside to the streets of Boston and Miami — but the book’s world never really expands beyond Steadman’s perceptions. Even after consuming the drugs — given to him by the somewhat stereotypically drawn Ecuadorian Manfred, who reappears later in the novel in the guise of a hero — Steadman’s thoughts and reality remain deeply rooted in only himself.
     And then he goes blind.
     Sight, blindness, blindfolds, vision — from the title to the last page, these themes run throughout Theroux’s book. Indeed, Theroux seems to use the themes to illustrate Steadman’s quest as spiritual — he “sees” more clearly once his sight is gone:

“My vision is excellent,” Steadman said. “It’s my eyesight that’s a little faulty.”

(In keeping with Steadman’s strange world, he speaks these words to the president of the United States, who is a character in the novel, as are the writer William Styron and the producer/director Mike Nichols, among other well-known public personalities.)
     Theroux is the author of more than 20 books and no stranger to travels, quests, life on the edges, or of celebrity personalities, for that matter. Many of Theroux’s books have centered on similar themes — he is an expert at offering world-weary characters, surprising encounters, and unique, sometimes odd settings. He is also versed at offering, through his characters, reflections on travel, world politics, and writing itself. As with other prolific writers, one sometimes wonders if these themes haven’t already been done enough justice.
     Another favorite theme of Theroux, which is also found in Blinding Light, is sexuality – especially when it’s linked to attraction, knowledge, and power. Steadman even manages to find Halloween arousing:

. . . looking at Halloween kids . . . Steadman could not help attaching sexuality to the masked people, even the skinny-legged girls, whom he saw as teasing, even provocative.

Steadman sees sex everywhere and seems to need it everywhere:

Sex was a form of departure, a passionate sacrifice of farewell, and even his writing these days had the unanswerable finality of a suicide note.

Travelling with Blinding Light’s protagonist is his newly ex-girlfriend Ava, who becomes increasingly sexually uninhibited as the novel progresses, allowing herself to play with Steadman like she never had while they were a couple. Though titillating, the sexual encounters between these two come off heavy handed. Instead of a well-drawn realistic woman, Ava comes off as just another item that exists to please Steadman. Even her own pleasure seems somehow centered around him. At one point, she tells Steadman she was “sucking the life out of you” to grow stronger, and she means it literally.
     Ava turns out to be duplicitous (which should be no surprise — the middle of the novel contains a scathing description of Steadman’s dislike of his first wife, who he ended up divorcing in part because she did not read his first novel; misogyny may be another oft-used theme in Theroux’s books). His vision comes back, albeit ambiguously.
      But in the end, none of these physical and emotional challenges matter. Steadman gets what he was after, his quest is over, and he is presumably spiritually, physically, and artistically whole again.
      Early on in the novel, Theroux writes: “As a writer, nothing pleased Steadman more than holding a conversation in which the other person told him everything and he responded giving nothing away.”
     Unfortunately, in Blinding Light, we are given too much of Steadman — his strange world is claustrophobic — and too little of other people.

Amy Mehringer lives in Syracuse, N.Y. Her stories have been published in The Washington Review, The Baltimore Review, Folio, Timber Creek Review, Kiosk and River City. She works as a writer on the staff of Cornell University and was a teacher-trainer PCV in Cape Verde.
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