Paul Theroux’s contribution to the revival of contemporary travel writing is so seminal that casual readers may be inclined to forget that most of his rather astonishingly prodigious output has been literary fiction.
“A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta” is his 29th fictional work and his 44th book, which isn’t bad for a 43-year career. The subtitle suggests that Theroux intends this new volume to be considered as a novel of crime and detection, which makes it his first venture into that genre. On those terms, it’s not a particularly successful novel, but this being Theroux it’s frequently an interesting one.
The initial difficulty arises from the plotting, which is ramshackle at best with a central secret that you’ll probably figure out midway through the book. Most of the minor characters who give crime fiction so much of its narrative texture are vestigial presences, which in several cases is a shame. The more difficult problem is a matter of authorial attitude. When a literary novelist makes a foray into genre fiction -- think Graham Greene’s superb “entertainments” or, more recently, John Banville’s terrific Benjamin Black books -- it’s necessary that they proceed with utter conviction and a kind of respect for the customs of the territory they’ve appropriated. There’s little room for the knowing wink or the sly stylistic gesture. A hint of condescension and the reader ceases to be entertained and feels as if he’s gone slumming.
What prevents “A Dead Hand” from tumbling headlong into that pit -- though at times it dances perilously along the edge -- is Theroux’s characteristically self-absorbed indifference to nearly all literary conventions, except the necessity of good writing. (This is, after all, the guy who redeemed travel writing for the modern age by switching the subject from the journey to the traveler’s, which is to say his own experience.)
The protagonist of “A Dead Hand” is Jerry Delfont, a washed-up, dispirited American travel writer suffering from a bad case of writer’s block and a gnawing sense that he’s emotionally and spiritually burnt-out. His small success as a magazine writer is over. Even his demeaning foray into television has come to nothing.
A “dead hand” is Theroux’s biomorphic metaphor for his inability to write, and the author’s longtime readers probably will recognize this conceit from his last full-length novel, “Blinding Light,” whose middle-aged travel writing narrator takes off for Ecuador in search of hallucinogenic drugs to break his own crippling writer’s block. Before “A Dead Hand” slumps to a conclusion, there also will be intimations of “My Other Life,” in which Theroux created an “imaginary memoir” by exploring how various incidents in his life might have gone differently had he made choices other than those he did.
Delfont finds himself in Calcutta doing the sort of evasive social busy work with which writers occupy themselves when they’re unable to write. Out of the blue, he receives a letter from Merrill Unger, a secretive but well-regarded American philanthropist who’s long been a resident of the city. Unger wears saris, speaks Bengali and has become a devotee of Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, change and destruction (the word also means “black,” which will turn out to be a kind of clue to one of the subplots Theroux sets up, then abandons). For reasons that never are quite clear, Unger -- who claims to be a fan of Delfont’s writing -- wants to enlist his help in unraveling the circumstances surrounding one of her son’s friends, who awoke to find a dead child on the floor of his hotel room.
Unger, whose wealth derives from obscure business interests, operates an orphanage that rescues child prostitutes from brothels. She is given to invidious comparisons between her work and that of Mother Teresa, whom she holds in a disdain which Delfont and, one suspects, Theroux share. (The author, after all, recently denounced Bono, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as self-aggrandizing “mythomaniacs” for their African relief work.) As Jerry vulgarly muses at a fashionable Calcutta literary party: “And far from the frivolity, somewhere in Calcutta, Mrs. Unger was attending to her lost children, mothering them, saving lives. It was the opposite of the world of morbidity at Mother Teresa’s anteroom of death, tucking old people into bed for the big sleep.”
In fairly short order, Delfont has fallen completely -- obsessively, actually -- under the erotic thrall of Mrs. Unger, who prefers the honorific usually reserved for Hindu goddesses, “Ma,” and turns out to be adept at both yoga and tantric sex. Many pages are given over to her ministrations to Jerry through various forms of massage -- attention, calling Dr. Freud -- and, while this reader’s familiarity with that process is scant, suffice to say it appears to be one of those things more meaningfully experienced than observed. (I will stipulate based on what I read in this book, though, that, as a general rule, one probably ought to avoid sexual partners who practice the ritual sacrifice of goats.)
By now, you’ve probably tumbled to the fact that Ma Unger is not quite who she appears to be and has a deeply sinister aspect -- rather like her favorite goddess. It takes Jerry a bit longer to see this, but then the plot of “A Dead Hand” has the meandering character of one of Theroux’s travel pieces. One of its extended digressions, for example, involves Delfont’s encounter with Theroux, a meeting that leads to a general denunciation of travel writing, travel writers and all that concerns them.
As Jerry says of Paul: “This smirking, intrusive, ungenerous, and insincere man was jumping to conclusions about me. . . . I hated his horrible attempt at appreciations as he sat smugly inside his pretense of surprise. He was someone who could not accept things for what they were and be at peace. . . . He made me confront myself, my failure, as he flashed back my reflection in the writer’s mirror he hid behind. . . . I also knew that he was going to write about me, about meeting me, and that he’d get everything wrong.”
Odd, but the things about “A Dead Hand” that seem most right are evocations of India that seem most like great travel writing.