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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Blinding Light

Paul Theroux

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Blinding Light

Title: Blinding Light
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 438 pages
Availability: Blinding Light - US
Blinding Light - UK
Blinding Light - Canada
Blinding Light - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-told, but loses its way (or at least its energy) by the end

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 13/8/2005 James Buchan
The Independent . 15/7/2005 Julian Evans
Independent on Sunday . 24/7/2005 James Urquhart
The LA Times . 3/7/2005 Tom Miller
The NY Sun . 1/6/2005 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/6/2005 Hari Kunzru
The Observer . 10/7/2005 Adam Mars-Jones
San Francisco Chronicle . 5/6/2005 Stephen J. Lyons
The Spectator . 16/7/2005 D.J.Taylor
Sunday Times . 3/7/2005 Tom Deveson
The Telegraph . 18/7/2005 John Preston
The Telegraph . 18/7/2005 Sam Leith
TLS . 15/7/2005 Stephen Burn
The Washington Post . 19/6/2005 Peter D. Kramer

  Review Consensus:

  Varying degrees of enthusiasm, with no one thinking he really pulls it off

  From the Reviews:
  • "A journeyman editor would have cut out the repetitions, quotations, boasting, name-dropping, purple passages, dreams, hallucinations, score-settling, bombast and sex fantasies. He would have seen if there were a novel in here." - James Buchan, The Guardian

  • "In a sense, whether you will enjoy this novel depends on whether you share its author's erotic interests. It has not always, but often, been thus with Paul Theroux." - Julian Evans, The Independent

  • "While the plot surges onwards with Steadman's hubristically defiant return to public life and personal calamity, any thematic coherence begins to falter. Looping ideas of possession, trespass, deceit and sight amount to little more than continuity links in the narrative. Steadman's shamanic mind-reading ability while drugged demands too much suspense of disbelief in an otherwise grittily naturalistic work." - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday

  • "(A) shrewd and cunning novel full of malleable personalities, psychedelia and considerable sex. What more could a reader ask for ? (...) Theroux maintains tight control over his novel's twists and turns, although there's a bit too much of both near the end. Still, his very funny accounts of the publishing industry, the travel writing phenomenon and life on Martha's Vineyard -- in short, elements of his own life -- ring clear and true." - Tom Miller, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Underneath the naturalism, this book stands in a tradition far more ancient than the novel, in which the journey of the central character is exemplary, an illustration of the consequences of right and wrong action." - Hari Kunzru, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though Theroux's own output is somewhere between prolific and prodigal, he convincingly inhabits a writer at the opposite end of the productivity spectrum, and an example of an increasingly common character type, the embittered success -- Midas with a leaden scowl. (...) Theroux is better here on place than person" - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "In any case, pleasure -- especially the sexual and mind-altering varieties -- cannot go unpunished forever. Despite all his trips abroad, Theroux is an American writer who knows all too well this nation's love-hate relationship with feeling good. With that in mind, readers might anticipate the unraveling of Steadman's Faustian bargain." - Stephen J. Lyons, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The best bits of Blinding Light -- and these are very good indeed -- cover the irritations of the Ecuador trip and the finale, in which Steadman finds himself stalked by a German datura-sampler who ‘knows his secret’. The bonking sessions, on the other hand, are almost Wagnerian in their portentousness and will be shortly leaving this desk for the welcoming embrace of the Literary Review Bad Sex award." - D.J.Taylor, The Spectator

  • "Although written with his familiar fluency, and with occasional flashes of considerable power, Blinding Light is overlong, self-indulgent and finally unconvincing." - Tom Deveson, Sunday Times

  • "Much of the book has -- quite intentionally -- the quality of a trance. Unfortunately, it's a very long and meandering trance in which Theroux's purpose becomes increasingly hard to discern. (...) All this makes for a maddeningly uneven whole in which wonderfully descriptive passages sit alongside unreined digressions and surprisingly clichéd characters" - John Preston, The Telegraph

  • "This is a novel that -- as its title suggests -- works on binary oppositions: blindness and sight; doctor and patient; seducer and seduced; mental and physical trespass. Parallels and contrasts are rather lumberingly made. (...) Theroux's desire to say something profound seems to have overtaken his undoubted skills as a reporter both of the actual and of the imagined; the story is tugged awkwardly towards allegory. His need to insist damages his prose, too." - Sam Leith, The Telegraph

  • "Theroux is a gifted writer, and there are many memorable passages and much deft description here, but, as a whole, the novel is uneven. The first half of the book is better than the second, and the brief conclusion, with several strands of the plot left hanging, dispels much of the narrative momntum established earlier in the novel." - Stephen Burn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This overgenerous set-up robs the book of any tension, moral or narrative. But the drug's beneficial effects allow Theroux to indulge in a number of set pieces. (...) Blinding Light is less a fully realized novel than a collection of prejudices, about politics and passion. It is also an unembarrassed declaration of addiction to the art of writing, a pledge of allegiance to a fickle muse." - Peter D. Kramer, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Blinding Light tells the story of writer Slade Steadman. Decades ago he had published a book that had become a phenomenon, Trespassing, in which he recounted his adventures travelling around the globe without a passport (or practically anything else), stealing across borders: travel in its purest, freest form, completely disregarding bureaucracy. He had made good money and a fine reputation with it, but he made a fortune off the licensing: the Trespassing-brand, featuring many high-end and limited edition travel-related products, was a market leader, the products ubiquitous among rich, Western travellers.
       The novel opens with Steadman travelling to Ecuador with his girlfriend, a doctor named Ava Katsina. They have actually split up at this point, but because they booked the expedition long beforehand didn't want a ticket to go to waste and travelled together. The journey is a drug-trip: they will go to the Ecuadorean hinterlands to partake in a local ritual.
       More than anything, Steadman is looking for inspiration. He wants to be a writer again, though since his first book all he's managed is to sell articles to travel magazines and the like. The book he wants to write has eluded him (and his financial position has made it easy for him to continue pushing it into the future).
       The trip doesn't begin well: in best cranky-traveller fashion, Theroux derides the other travellers. One has Steadman's book, several are outfitted in Trespassing-gear, and they're an obnoxious, boorish bunch. Steadman thinks that once in Ecuador everyone will go their separate ways, but, of course, there's no such thing as unique experience anymore: it turns out they're all booked on the same tour as him.
       They're tiresome travellers, too, and seem to almost revel in their disappointment in and abhorrence of what they see and experience:

     Conversation for them, Steadman saw, was returning again and again to a subject and harping in monotonous repetition on trivialities. He had heard this same banter several times already, in the van, at Lago Agrio, at Papallacta, at the village.
     "Kenya's a fucking zoo," Hack said. "India's a total dump. China sucks big-time. Egypt's all ragheads. Japan's a parking lot. Want a sex tour ? Go to Thailand ? Want to get robbed by a Gypsy ? Go to Italy. Want a truly shitty experience among dirtbags ? Come here."
       The traveller reading Trespassing declines to try the drugs, pointing out:
I mean the whole point of this book is that you can test your limits without putting crap like that in your system.
       But Steadman is desperate. The drug that they came for makes for a decent experience, but not enough -- but there's another opportunity. He tries datura (Methysticodendron): it's effects vary from person to person, but it's just the thing for him: it literally blinds him, but allows him to see far deeper than he ever has before. Despite losing one sense he becomes more confident, and is privy to others' secrets.
       He brings a stash home with him so he can brew up the tea every day and revel in the blinding light he finds there. It's enough to get him writing again (and enough to bring Ava back to his side again). The novel he embarks on, dictating to Ava, is The Book of Revelation:
He was obsessed with writing the one book that would say everything about him, disclose all his secrets. He would have to call it a novel, because the names would be changed, but the rest, the masquerade of fiction, would be true, for a man in a mask is most himself.
       He's hooked -- and he's a writer again. Under the influence of the drug he is able to compose, finally able to put into words a story -- his primal story. It's the ultimate writer-high, which he can summon forth almost at will (he just has to brew up some of that tea).
       Steadman also revels in the blindness, choosing to present himself publicly in the artificially induced sightless state. This blindness isn't a handicap; in many ways he can see more clearly. Among those he meets and impresses is then-President Clinton, about to face his own calamity, who finds in Steadman a kindred spirit.
       The book is published, and a great success, but once the writing is done Steadman isn't on the same sure ground. The book-tour goes okay, most of the while, but the blindness begins to have a different, more permanent hold over him, and he becomes less sure of himself, sinking rapidly from a man in complete control to a near-paranoid, fearful state. Ironically, some begin to claim he is a fraud just as the blindness becomes real.
       The spiral out of control happens quickly, the blind paranoia and fear well-described, the condition perhaps the appropriate comeuppance for the character, but it all falls apart (and is then resolved) too fast.
       Blinding Light is familiar Theroux-territory: the autobiographically-based fiction. In the travel-details (the unpleasant trip to Ecuador or even the book-tour) as well as the reminiscences (his first marriage, his first book, his relationship with Ava) Theroux impresses and entertains. His attempt to describe Steadman's need to write this particular story (itself an autobiographically-based fiction), and what that involves, as well as the sheer passion of the writer lost in the pleasure of creating (as well as the careful routine around the actual writing) is excellent -- though Blinding Light sounds considerably more interesting than this fictional The Book of Revelation. But with the blindness ultimately truly settling in, Theroux seems to lose his way a bit: much as Steadman is deflated by what happens, so the book itself seems to lose air and energy.
       Still, Blinding Light is a generally lively and entertaining read, with a good deal of well-observed detail; among much else, the Clinton-subplot, for example, works surprisingly well. Steadman is an often unpleasant person, which makes it hard to sympathise with him and some of what he goes through, and Theroux's nasty misanthropy is occasionally wearing (readers familiar with his work will, of course, be all too familiar with it as well), but the good riffs on travel, creative acts (writing and sex, in this case), and personal failings (ruthlessly presented by Theroux) make up for a lot of that.
       Not entirely a success, but good enough.

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Blinding Light: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2005-2024 the complete review

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