The Elephanta Suite, a novel by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin)
In “The Gateway of India,” the middle section of Paul Theroux’s new novel, Dwight Huntsinger is dispatched to Mumbai to close outsourcing deals for his company in Boston. When he returns, he is celebrated as a hero. “He had been welcomed home as though he had been in the jungle, returned from the ends of the earth, escaped the savages, the terrorists, a war zone. India represented everything negative – chaos and night. And so on his return from his second visit he understood what the partners were saying; he had once said them himself. ‘Human life means nothing to those people,’ Sheely had said. And because he’d been to India – and gotten sick – his word was taken to be the truth.”
I know this sort of office talk. “They say travel broadens the mind,” wrote C.K. Chesterton, “but you must have the mind.” Silently and harshly, I would judge my work colleagues who returned from India and other less frequently visited places without anything interesting to say. Andrew Solomon, writing in The New York Times on American education, summed up one of my prevailing prejudices. “There is a basic social divide between those for whom life is an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge, and for those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy.”
The Elephanta Suite takes us further, diluting any bland assumptions about the fatuousness, vapidness and inattentiveness of Americans on the road. Theroux accomplishes this by describing the familiar turns of mind in displaced American psyches as they experience the alien. He works on the surfaces of these minds (Chesterton perhaps would refuse to recognize them as such), always portraying just the right depth of self-awareness appropriate to the character. As one expects from Theroux, the scenes are drawn with economy and telling detail. In the first section, “Monkey Hill,” Audie and Beth Blunden, a wealthy married couple, enjoy a long stay at a health resort: “What the Blundens had seen of India, the populous and chaotic India they’d been warned about, the India that made you sick and fearful and impatient, was one one-hour drive from the airport to the top of Monkey Hill, the Ayurvedic spa known as Agni.” Beth and Audie have separate reasons for extending their stay where they are treated with deference as they follow a schedule of individual treatments and sessions. In the second section, Dwight Huntsinger lives for weeks in the Elephanta Suite, shifting between meetings with prospective suppliers and having sex with an Indian girl named Indru whose spare room is in the poor neighborhood of Chowpatty: “It was open to the alley, the TV sets of the neighbors, the smell of spices and boiled vegetables, the whine of traffic, norns beeping, distant music that always seemed to evoke for Dwight an atmosphere of strangulation.” In the spa or heading up Indru’s stairwell reeking of urine and garbage, the American’s quite ordinary mind unravels, then recollects around some insight which turns out to be tentative. In part three, “The Elephant God,” a recent graduate of Brown University named Alice, an unattractive young woman (or so she believes), travels alone to an ashram having been abandoned by her school friend Stella. Running short on dollars and rupees, she takes a job teaching English to call-center workers at Infotech in Bangalore. Between ashram and her job in Electronics City, she often visits a mahout who tends an elephant, moments that calm and elate her.
All of the characters run into trouble. Beth and Audie Blunden, blundering at the spa, are drawn as somewhat more shallow or less complex than Huntsinger or Alice. Affluent and in their fifties, their personalities and perspectives are more fixed, the self-dramas they enact are narrow and tawdry. When they are finally ejected from the spa, they have little insight into the forces pushing them out. Here is Theroux’s artistry at work, as he also prevents us from seeing too much and keeps our view limited to that of the Blundens. The Elephanta Suite is built out of keenly observed moments that stay true to the limited points of view of the characters. At the beginning of “Monkey Hill,” Audie and Beth see a troop of monkeys atop the hill:
“I hate apes,” Beth said.
“No. Apes are more like us,” Audie said, and in the darkness he covertly picked his nose. Was it the dry air?
But Beth hadn’t heard. He was peering into the thickening dusk. “Incredible,” he said in a whisper. “I think they were watching the sunset, just lingering for the last warmth of the sun.”
“Like us,” she said.
And Beth stared at him, not because of what he’d said but the way he’d said it. He sounded so pompous chewing on this simple observation. They traveled a lot, and she had noticed how travel often made this normally straightforward man pretentious.
Beth has been a faithful if myopic wife, Audie has been a philanderer. Beth's observation, a quite typical recoiling from one's spouse, passing quickly and forgotten, has a muted, subtle effect. As the plot progresses, we know the Blundens are close, used to each other, yet somehow out of touch. But we cannot predict the outcome, or even know if this bit of information from Beth is critical. This these stories, India causes the characters to react sharply to the sensory -- but the messages are unclear.
The more the events at the spa, business meetings, and ashram tell the characters about their selves, the more silent India remains about its own hidden natures. India seems always ready to accommodate every desire of the American – for discovery, wealth, sexual pleasure, forgetfulness. In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino wrote, “Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” For Theroux, this kind of revelatory statement is postponed and swapped for smaller revelations in his characters minds’ that are usually superceded by new ones. Nevertheless, The Elephanta Suite, as successfully as it works in terms of sheer plot, control of tone, and grasp of character, is also filled with canny insights on globalization, national character, and the itinerant life.
The India of The Elephanta Suite has its own motivations for catering to the Americans. For Dwight Huntsinger, recently divorced and suffering through a free-floating sense of personal failure, India gives him a way to identify with what he believes are the debauched and desperate ways of all humanity. He has more or less outsourced his own personal development, such as it is, to India. “His work was a punishment and a wrecking ball: he took manufacturing away from American companies and brought it to India. The American manufacturers hated him – and they failed; the Indian companies were cynical, knowing that if they could not produce goods cheaply enough, they would be rejected. Every success meant someone’s failure. He could not take any pride in that process: he was part of it.” The Indians are simply another element in a global malaise. “They way the bosses screamed at their underlings, the shrill orders a manager gave a secretary, the bullshit, the buck-passing, the cruel teasing, the racism, hating each other much more than they hated foreigners – it all revealed to Dwight a culture of both punishment and sexual frustration, for the two always went together.”
Woven throughout the novel is the almost obligatory theme of worldliness and ambition versus anti-materialism and selflessness. Theroux blends these abstractions wonderfully through the novel’s grit and tension. In the American mind, India instantly evokes some or all of these concepts, and so the visiting American is drawn in to them, conscious of being measured against these looming, pre-existing mental archetypes. In Alice’s case, a struggle for independence and self-respect requires her to master both the worldliness of Infotech and the timelessness of the ashram. In between, there is the elephant, and thoughts of the god Ganesh, the elephant god. Here is an insight she earns along the way:
“She had come to understand what the solitary long-distance traveler learns after months on the road – that in the course of time a trip stops being an interlude of distractions and detours, pursuing sights, looking for pleasures, and becomes a series of disconnections, giving up comfort, abandoning or being abandoned by friends, passing the time in obscure places, inured to the concept of delay, since the trip itself is a succession of delays.” And so she comes to feel, with the confidence of this clarity of thought, that she is in control, making progress in a personal quest. But ultimately, her need to take an independent stance leads to a tragic complication with a young male acquaintance named Amitabh, one of her InfoTech students. “ ‘Alice’ – she hated his using her name – ‘listen, most things that people do in India are against the law. That’s how we survive. We’re too poor to obey the law. You can bribe anyone, you can do anything if you have money. That’s why we hate foreigners. We know they always bend the rules, too, just like us, except they always get away with it.’ ”
Paul Theroux has made a fast-paced, insightful entertainment out of the ordinary minds of Americans. He never attempts to get more out of his characters than such people can provide -- but the urgency of their thoughts and actions is utterly credible, authentically felt, and worth our consideration. The Elephanta Suite increases awareness as it gives pleasure, appeals to our senses and our minds, and forces us to struggle with the characters, as unappealing, shallow, abrupt, corrupt or violent as they may be. I can now see that Audie Blunden, returning home after a harsh experience at Agni, is and has been my corporate acquaintance.
[256 pages, $25.00]