I’m a fast reader. I love finishing a book over the weekend, and if it takes me more than a week, well, it’s got to be something the size of War and Peace or Infinite Jest. I find it therefore quite unusual to have been stuck for about three weeks bogged down in Blinding Light, a novel by fine travel writer Paul Theroux. I want you to see the cover art, which is quite attractive, so that you may have a glimpse at why I picked it up on a whim, while stocking up in a bookstore before Christmas last year (if only I’d waited until I could look up a couple of reviews online, I probably would have been spared this hideous mistake).
So, just imagine: I am in the store with a basket full of books. I see this one. I know the author as a non-fiction writer: I have previously enjoyed The Happy Isles of Oceania and Dark Star Safari, two excellent travel memoirs that do not remain shy of social critique and interesting political commentary (cut off all aid to sub-Saharan Africa!). This paperback is compact, attractively designed, and offers 438 pages of reading in a nice Penguin package: it practically begs to be taken on vacation.
It also has a front-cover blurb by Oliver Sacks, where Dr. Sacks says it kept him “up half the night […] to savour every word”. By now, having fallen asleep with this book for virtually three weeks in a row after about ten minutes of reading, my guess is that Theroux must have offered Sacks some Ecuadorean plant extract of hallucinogenic qualities no less potent than the ones he posits in the drug discovered in the jungle by his protagonist Slade Steadman. Writers love endorsing other writers generously, but it sometimes detracts from their own brand: am I ever going to trust Dr. Sacks’s judgment again?
The central problem with the book is quite clearly stated on page 143. “He [Slade Steadman] was convinced that his sexual history was the essential truth that demanded to be written as fiction.” Now, I consider myself a good reader of sexual histories. I think sex is interesting to read about, to write about, to think about. Give me a good sex book any time – I’m game. Yet, both Slade Steadman’s adult relationship with Ava Katsina and the two hundred pages of teenage Slade’s sexual history flashbacks bore me to tears. With the only exception of readers with a pre-existing blindness fetish, or a blindfold hobby at the very least, I cannot imagine who would find this endless sex narrative compelling or, God forbid, a turn-on.
Because I attach quite a lot of importance to sheer willpower, I am determined to finish the book: there’s always the hope, after so much slogging through drivel, for a deft finale, a surprise twist, an unexpected way for the castle of cards to tumble down. Yet, I cannot be too forceful in recommending that readers keep clear of this one. Don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, I mean. If someone gives you this book, recycle the paper. If this were the last book on earth and you had to burn it for warmth, you’d do so with no regrets. If you were stuck on a desert island with this book… you get the picture.
Going to read some more, now. Wish me luck.