Some Authors Can’t Smell Their Own B.O.

One of my favorite parts of a Sunday NY Times is that thin little Book Review, that I never read first but usually get around to poking through at the very end of the day. There are so many books out there and so many more being put out every day that nobody could read them all. But the Book Review gives me a chance to glimpse into many of the most critically acclaimed tomes one after another. So many times I plan to read these books but only get as far as the reviews.

I read a scathing review of Paul Theroux’s most recent book, where he revisits the places he wrote about thirty years ago in “The Great Railway Bazaar.” The headline made no mention of the savagery which was to come. Rightly so, reviewer Robert MacFarlane calls the old codger and world’s grumpiest travel writer out on his sheer egotism and narcissism. He uses words that I’ve always wanted to use, like ‘risible,’ when he accuses Theroux of vast generalizations and oversimplifications. “Such tossed-off one-liners are risible in isolation, but in sum they suggest a systematic laziness of thought.”

He gets tougher, comparing the book’s self-absorbed style to body odor.”Certain writers have a style that can be best likened to body odor: irresistable to some, obnoxious to many and apparently imperceptible to the writer himself. Theroux’s lack of self-awareness, his failure to observe the basic hygiene of modesty, is compelling in its way. How can anyone be this narcissistic, you wonder in disbelief, in appalled fascination.”

Finally Theroux makes a grand conclusion about the train trip from London to Tokyo via India and Southeast Asia, and talks about the differences from this journey today and the one he made 30 years before. Dismissing the vast societal, political and environmental changes, Theroux, predicably, says that ‘the greatest difference was in me. I had survived the long road that lead to the present.’ Like MacFarlane, I’ve got to call the old grump out—no you’re not the only thing that’s changed, I’ve gotta tell ya.