Books

The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

Michael Antman

In Paul Theroux’s brackish, world-weary new collection, India is inherently unknowable and inevitably dangerous, the result of such knowledge being disappointment at best and, at worst, rape, dissolution, or death.


The Elephanta Suite

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618943323
Author: Paul Theroux
Price: $25.00
Length: 288
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-09
Amazon

When Paul Theroux first appeared on the scene, his non-fiction books were a bracing corrective to the kind of second-rate saccharine gush that then and now passed for travel writing, in which every land was a land of contrasts, every resort was luxurious, and every meal to die for.

Written by PR people who'd talked themselves into believing they were adventuring journalists, most travel essays were payment in kind, wherein free meals and accommodations were exchanged for reliably rapturous reports on all but the world's most tyrannical and fly-specked outposts. It was a neat arrangement that served everyone's interests except those of the traveler in search of genuine experience.

In absorbing narratives such as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Happy Isles of Oceania, and The Pillars of Hercules, Theroux promised, and delivered, that genuine experience, or at least a very personal and subjective version of it. Indeed, Theroux was hardly a travel writer at all, though his subject was travel. Rather, he was a kind of intrepid investigator of the clashes -- of culture, of consciousness, of unrealistic expectations -- that occur whenever an outsider penetrates an unfamiliar and "exotic" milieu.

While, in his non-fiction, that outsider was himself, in Theroux's fiction, the outsider was often someone less comprehending and far less cosmopolitan, and thus far more prone to disaster than Theroux, who frequently could be dismissive and dyspeptic, but rarely incapable.

In Theroux's brackish, world-weary new fiction collection, three very loosely linked novellas collectively called The Elephanta Suite, the setting is India and the characters are incapable, indeed. The result is a dismal book -- a dismal reading experience, to be sure, but, as well, a book whose theme seems to be that foreign cultures are inherently unknowable and -- even if one should accidentally approach, and begin to understand, that culture's beating heart -- inevitably dangerous, the result of such knowledge being disappointment at best and, at worst, rape, dissolution, or death.

In the collection's first novella -- the best of the three -- a pampered and prosperous middle-aged American couple who are on an extended stay at a health spa are barely aware of India at all. They luxuriate in their yoga lessons and hot-oil massages, engage in some ill-advised sexual dalliances with Indian staff members, and, when they venture forth into a mysterious town just outside their compound, become trapped in a terrifying local religious dispute.

In the second narrative, a lonely American businessman in India to negotiate offshoring deals ends up going native when his own sexual dalliances with some needy local girls turn sour. And in the final story, a young female college student seeking spiritual sustenance is, herself, dallied with in an ugly way by an overweight young Indian man whom she makes the mistake of befriending. In each case, however, what's really being played with is the characters' comfortable assumptions, or arrogant ignorance, about India.

But it isn't enough, apparently, for Theroux to put his characters through the mill. The reader, too, is assumed to be an innocent abroad who must be hectored incessantly about his own smug assumptions. The result is the most discursive and redundant book Theroux has ever written. Did you know that some Indians who practice Jainism are so respectful of life in all its forms that they won't eat common food such as potatoes for fear of disturbing the "fungi and microbial substances" that grow on the surface? If not, you will be reminded of this fact by one of Theroux's characters not once, not twice, but four or five times.

You'll be reminded far too many times as well that, "(F)rom a distance, India was splendor; up close, misery." This falls something short of a revelation, no matter how many times and in how many ways it is repeated. And we are told and shown so often that Indians come across (at least to Westerners) as finicky and stilted that Theroux himself begins to seem, well, finicky and stilted.

Theroux's writing here seems to reflect a diminution in his own confidence, or perhaps in his confidence that readers will grasp his point. Consider this passage about a meal that's not to die for: "None of the food looked edible. Although it was his second trip to India, he had not so far touched any Indian food. He did not think of it as food; all of it looked lethal." Okay, we get it, food's no good. Or this one: "She slumped and put her head in her hands, heavy, bereft, sorrowful in the empty room." After the word "hands," there's nothing about that sentence that doesn't represent diminishing returns.

Theroux, who wrote a superb novel some years ago called The Mosquito Coast about an intelligent but humorless fugitive from civilization, is sometimes too smart, and too disgusted with the things of this earth, himself. You can feel his contempt for everything and everyone -- Americans, Indians, the very idea of civilization. Certainly it's as legitimate a world-view as any other and doubtless hard-won, but the prospective traveler in Theroux's precincts must be warned that there is no humor or warmth to be found there -- and less fresh insight than one might expect to balance out these deficiencies. It's hard to imagine anyone wishing to linger in The Elephanta Suite.

3

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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