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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Hotel Honolulu

Paul Theroux

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To purchase Hotel Honolulu

Title: Hotel Honolulu
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 424 pages
Availability: Hotel Honolulu - US
Hotel Honolulu - UK
Hotel Honolulu - Canada
Hotel Honolulu - India
Hôtel Honolulu - France
Hotel Honolulu - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a solid novel, full of wild and entertaining stories, breezily told

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly B 5/2001 Stephen Amidon
Christian Science Monitor . 19/4/2001 Heller McAlpin
Evening Standard B 30/4/2001 Mark Sanderson
The Guardian . 14/4/2001 Giles Foden
The Independent A- 21/4/2001 Julian Evans
The LA Times A 31/5/2001 Michael Harris
New Statesman B 30/4/2001 Gerry Feehily
The NY Times B+ 16/5/2001 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/5/2001 Sven Birkerts
The Observer A 29/4/2001 Robert MacFarlane
San Francisco Chronicle . 3/6/2001 Floyd Skloot
The Spectator C- 28/4/2001 Jonathan Mirsky
Sunday Telegraph A- 22/4/2001 Will Cohu
The Sunday Times A- 15/4/2001 Peter Kemp
The Times B 18/4/2001 Erica Wagner
TLS B 27/4/2001 Michael Newton

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though almost all grant that he writes very well. Those that think the focus is on the stories liked it less than those that think the focus is one the writer-narrator.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book brims with eccentric characters and their wild, usually morbid tales. (...) Theroux is less successful with his narrator, whose voice is merely a halfhearted attempt at exploring the sort of literary counterlife that so interests the author. (...) Theroux would have been wiser to check himself out of Hotel Honolulu and let it become the short-story collection it clearly longs to be." - Stephen Amidon, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Theroux is a sharp, unblinking storyteller with a taste for the scabrous and perverse. His narrator is a Gatsbyesque Nick Carraway figure reporting on the sadsacks at the Hotel Honolulu from the fringe. (...) Theroux has written a morbidly fascinating handbook of alienation and a Baedeker of his fantasies and inner life." - Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The life stories of its staff and guests comprise the 80 chapters of this towering construction. Most of them only last six or seven pages. Some are exotic, many are saucy and a few are hard to swallow -- even though all of them are expertly made. However, a diet of nothing but canapés can cause indigestion. There are, apparently, 130 words for wind in Hawaii. (...) Theroux is more interested in bending ears than plucking heartstrings. And yet, for all the cartoon comedy, Hotel Honolulu is a very sad book." - Mark Sanderson, Evening Standard

  • "These are all grotesque and wonderful creations, but perhaps the most important character is a real one, the late biographer of Henry James, Leon Edel. Elegant, frail and a friend of Theroux's in life, he is used here to provide an oblique high-cultural angle ("old gold") on the otherwise barbaric action -- the clerk's tale, as it were." - Giles Foden, The Guardian

  • "There remains something terrifically fit about his writing, a quality that works to enormous advantage in this crossover novel that is also a collection of short stories. The fitness isn't so much in his observation, or the atmosphere or characters, as in his combat-readiness with an anecdote." - Julian Evans, The Independent

  • "Gradually, though, we notice that the episodes aren't as unrelated as we think. The narrator hears different versions, gets additional information. People, seemingly fixed forever in the shape that hotel lore has given them, ooze over the boundaries or shatter them altogether. It's Theroux's way, we realize, of combining the effects of the short story and the novel -- the focused and the panoramic view." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times

  • "This, then, is little more than a stock portrait of the artist befuddled by his artisanal role in a world of plastic. Which is frustrating -- because one never gets the sense that Theroux is aware of his narrator's complacency. Although deftly told and consummately structured, Hotel Honolulu lacks any real moral urgency." - Gerry Feehily, New Statesman

  • "Hotel Honolulu, in other words, is extravagantly entertaining when it works, which is at least half the time, but it is also a novel whose whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "Theroux strings together dozens of these dark parables with practiced care. But while most of them are compelling (or hair-raising) on their own, their accumulation renders the novel increasingly amorphous." - Sven Birkerts, The New York Times Book Review

  • "One of the chief themes of this pleasurably complex novel is how we use narrative to give form to experience. (...) Theroux's hotel of fiction could easily have lapsed into a neat conceit for a book of unconnected stories, but his managerial skill -- his artistic consciousness -- is magnificent. So do yourself a favour: check in." - Robert MacFarlane, The Observer

  • "Theroux's often seething imagination has finally boiled over." - Floyd Skloot, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The problem in Hotel Honolulu is finding that basic ingredient of a novel, the story. (...) After a while Id start a new chapter, rather as if I were reading The New Yorker, and if I didnt like the opening lines Id skip to the next or perhaps the next but three. This is no way to structure a novel or to read one." - Jonathan Mirsky, The Spectator

  • "(T)he real attraction is the dynamic of the writing. It's not just the narrator-Theroux set-up. It's the business of seeing straight on this rumour-ridden island, of seeing the falsehood in facts and the truth in fantasy, and how one cannot live without the other. (...) The novel's weakness is a lack of heart. (...) Theroux's own writing is doomed by its deftness -- all hard outline and cool shadow, the brittle details of description and the sad stuff people leave behind, but little in between." - Will Cohu, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(W)hat makes this collection of macabre and darkly farcical tales so remarkable a read is the way it reveals the demons and the doubts that beset a complicated man struggling with his literary compulsions." - Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

  • "Hotel Honolulu is cleverly constructed -- a page-turner, as Theroux's novels almost always are. He is a master of mimicry, of dialogue, of brief description (.....) Theroux is always fluent, always smart, but the flaws in this work make it sour rather than tart." - Erica Wagner, The Times

  • "At times, Hotel Honolulu irritates and depresses with its knowingness and its harsh portrayal of purposeless lives. Yet Theroux's heart and mind are clearly in the right place. In the end, the book even feels innocent, the novel of a sensitive soul talking tough and masquerading behind a cynical detachment that he hardly feels." - Michael Newton, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Inveterate traveller Paul Theroux has written numerous works where he is almost constantly on the move, seeking out changes of scene and new stories. In Hotel Honolulu he allows the stories to come to him. The unnamed first-person narrator of this novel -- like the narrator of My Other Life a writer very similar to Theroux himself -- barely strays at all from the Hotel Honolulu during the course of the entire novel. But at least it is the Hotel Honolulu: "We're multistory", the hotel's owner tells him, and multi-story it is.
       The narrator, a once successful author, finds himself without much to show for it. Family, money: he's lost that and more. And he isn't writing much either. "I had never had a backup plan," he says. "My idea was to keep moving." But moving, all those years, only got him so far. Now, instead, he settles down, taking a position as manager of the second-rate Hotel Honolulu.
       Hotels are odd places. Lives intersect, briefly, and then people move on, back or forward -- or die (a surprising number die in Hotel Honolulu -- "this book full of corpses", the narrator says at the end). Everyone has a story, and the narrator recounts a bunch of them -- the extraordinary and the very ordinary happenings at the Hotel Honolulu. Theroux balances the guests' stories with those of the more permanent residents: the hotel has some long-term residents, as well as staff, and, in particular, there is the colourful owner of the hotel, Buddy Hamstra.
       The narrator is stuck in place. And that in isolated, insular Hawaii. "I liked Hawaii because it was a void", he says, and, besides a fit of domesticity (he quickly gets married and has a daughter), he does little to fill the void. The narrator also seems stuck in time -- or rather, in a timeless void. The novel spans almost a decade, and yet there is little sense of time moving at all between the beginning of his tenure at the hotel and the end. People come and go. Some return year after year -- but almost every year seems the same.
       At any point -- the end being much like the beginning or any other time -- the narrator has almost nothing to show for his time. He has not written much of anything (though he occasionally tries), he has not read much, he has not learned much. Which is certainly part of the point, as in many of Theroux's voyages to what is ultimately nowhere. Here, too, the getting there is half the fun -- though, since he is already there, and there is no sense of almost any motion, it takes on different forms than in your usual journey.
       The cast of characters includes Buddy, the wealthy owner of the hotel, a practical joker who doesn't take too much too seriously, and his unlikely Filipino wife, Pinky, and her assorted relatives. One of Buddy's meanest practical jokes is played on his family and Pinky -- but she, at least, has the last laugh. There is the narrator's wife, Sweetie, and her mother, Puamana; Sweetie was born out of a one night stand, the father, unknown to her or her mother, a very famous man. There is precocious Rose, the daughter the narrator and Sweetie have (and who the narrator slyly names after her paternal great-grandmother).
       There are a variety of local figures, including Henry James-biographer Leon Edel, one of the few people the narrator meets who reads at all -- something the narrator does value greatly:

After all these years I had come to see that he was the only person in Hawaii who knew me -- and in the most profound and subtle way, through my books, the detailed autobiographical fantasies of my fiction.
       The narrator's identity is tied to his writing: that is where his true self can be found. But in Hawaii he avoids writing -- avoids even being identified as a writer. There is power in fixing stories and lives on the page -- but it is a power he has lost for most of the novel. Tellingly, he only finds it again in writing of himself again -- as Hotel Honolulu is just another of these "detailed autobiographical fantasies".
       People do open up to him, telling him their stories -- because they know "that I had once been a writer." But he also thinks: "If they had read anything I had written, they would never tell me stories." But they do tell him their stories, and it is through them and through this that he does, eventually, find his way to writing again
       There are a wide variety of tales. Those of the guests, such as Roland Miranda, noisily working away in his room until he can lay himself to rest. Or Nevermann, the millionaire who simply looks people up, searching them out to "see what time has done to them", as he also does at the Hotel Honolulu.
       There are a variety of sordid goings-on that are recounted: crimes of passion, murders, suicides. Many of the women were taken advantage of in their youth.
       There is a lack of culture in Hawaii, about which the narrator sometimes complains. He finds some numbing comfort in it -- but then, of course, he has to go off to lunch with Leon Edel again. His marriage to Sweetie seems almost inexplicable, though his affection for their wise daughter is touching.
       The narrator observes rather than analyzes, largely mystified by the actions and motivations of those around him. The hotel largely takes care of itself: the staff does most of what needs to be done. He is mainly a figurehead. He tries to write, but without much success. Both work and domesticity get in the way -- despite the fact that neither is particularly taxing. But he can not reestablish his identity simply as a writer:
One of the contradictions of writing a short story in Hawaii -- something I had never before attempted -- was that I could do it only when I was working. Writing was impossible in that cramped two-room suite I shared upstairs with my wife and child. It annoyed me that while my six-year-old daughter had a desk there, I did not.
       Ultimately, with the end of his tenure at the Hotel Honolulu, he can, of course, move on again -- and in the release finds the release to write this book (prodded by daughter Rose's request: "Tell me a story, Daddy").

       Theroux writes with the easy confidence of a lifelong writer (at the beginning of the book there are two pages listing the 37 "Books by Paul Theroux"). He knows how to present his little stories, how to unfold his bigger and smaller tales. He is not overly ambitious, but he is not careless. He rarely hits the wrong tone, and occasionally he gets it just right -- such as when Buddy announces that Pinky is coming to Hawaii: "What sounded like his chuckling was the ice in his drink."
       Hotel Honolulu is a big, enjoyable book. Many of the tales are sad, some are a bit sour. There are few truly happy existences in the book, as even Buddy careens out of control. (The very delicately handled Rose is possibly an exception, but the narrator is careful in how much he uses her -- and one wonders what is to become of her.)
       Somewhat meandering (as befits its subject(s)), it is a good read, a solid entertainment.

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Hotel Honolulu: 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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