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In the Internet age, travel writing is a vanishing art.
Comments and ratings on reviews websites have transformed the travel experience from an adventure to a morass of condensed opinions and ratings.
Thankfully we still have Paul Theroux.
Having lived across three continents and visited numerous places over the years, Theroux’s world is broad and deep in its scope. He has mined this world over the years to establish a prolific writing career. According to a fan site, he has written 53 works of fiction and non-fiction. This, of course, does not include the numerous magazine articles, short stories, and features that Theroux has written for publications such as Vogue and GQ.
Fresh Air Fiend is a collection of Theroux’s writing on a broad variety of subjects, from the Chinese economic miracle to sailing on Cape Cod to portraitures of travelers and explorers. For readers, this means a collection of writings about disparate subjects.
What makes the book even more enjoyable is Theroux himself. Here he is trying to sail the Cape Cod. Here he is attempting to get a traditional cure for his foot ailment in Hong Kong. Or, here he is at a fancy Royal Geographical Society dinner with Bruce Chatwin.
Unlike other travel writers who obfuscate their presence while presenting their travel adventures, Theroux cheerily inserts himself and his moods into the adventure. This is a gift to readers because he is perceptive and self-absorbed at the same time. His glances at people and places are fleeting, honest, and, sometimes, profound.
There are eight parts to the book. Overarching these parts are three broad themes” travel adventures to remote places, a portraiture of places and people, and personal essays.
The three China essays (excerpted from his books about the country) are travel adventures and commentaries on a country that was changing rapidly. Given China’s current economic and political importance, the essays might seem dated. But they are invaluable accounts about the evolution of a rapidly-modernizing country overrun by tourists and manufacturers eager to establish operations there. During his travels, Theroux met an assortment of characters from important politicians (Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) to small-time industrialists from Europe.
Using a mix of history and his own reportage, Theroux charts China’s past and future. In one essay, he profiles his journey down the Yangtze (according to him, the future of humanity can be seen in the destitute barrenness surrounding the river). In the other two essays, he documents the Chinese economic miracle of the 1980s and the Hong Kong handover. He reflects on the Chinese national character (a mix of materialism and love of order that back to years of Party discipline) and goes to the Chinese Export Commodities Fair, the main focus of Chinese commerce back then, held in a large cavernous hall. There, Theroux takes a “disgusting pleasure at the profusion of stuff and makes a solemn view never again to buy a basket or a candle or anything else at a gift shop in the United States.” He covers the Hong Kong handover not by analyzing its economic implications but by juxtaposing an interview with Chris Patten with that of the average man on the street.
Like most writers, Theroux spends a large amount of time indoors in “inspissated darkness”. To cope with the long hours of solitude, he has taken up an assortment of outdoor physical activities from kayaking to paddle boarding to biking. The book’s essays also catalogue these set of adventures. The writing in these essays is quick, incisive, and leavened with humor.
For example, one of his essays is a Robinson Crusoe-like riff on being connected in Palau, a remote island off the coast of Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific. Theroux went there with an excess baggage of communications equipment. Even as he stood “stark naked and marveled at his luck in finding himself in such an unconnected place,” Theroux attempted to connect with friends and family.
“The idea was that I would set up camp on this desert island and, in spite of my remoteness, be in touch and well connected. “Hold on, Mrs. Crusoe, your son Robinson is on the line…,” as he writes. In the end, he ends up disconnected as the batteries for his equipment run out. “Indeed, my little lamp with its stump of candle, my jackknife, and my kayak paddle were of more use to me than the phone, the camcorder, the radio, the Newton, all dead weight.”
His portraiture of individuals and fellow writers is less humorous. This is particularly evident in a remembrance essay about travel writer Bruce Chatwin, where Theroux deflates popular myths about Chatwin’s so-called adventurous life. “I don’t believe in coming clean,” Chatwin had told Theroux. Theroux does believe in coming clean, however, and relates anecdotes and incidents about Chatwin that show the latter’s fabulist nature. But he is more generous with travelers and explorers. In these writings, he has profiled a number of them: Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Scott, Gerard D’Aboville. Their faults, which range from being bipolar to overly dramatic, are glossed over and redeemed by their love of travel and new experiences.
Theroux also explains his approach to travel writing and states that he prefers the “humbler route” of talking to the common man during his travels. But this collection of essays does not have a lot of common man speak. In most instances, Theroux speaks to important people (Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) or people who matter.
Then there is also the matter of turning the writerly lens on Theroux himself.
Theroux accuses Chatwin of compartmentalizing his life and the people in it. But that is a habit for most adults that I know. In Chatwin’s case, he had greater incentive to do this because he was born in an era, when homosexuality was criminalized in Britain. A word or two about this fact that might have provided context for Chatwin’s hesitation in proclaiming his sexuality.
Then there are also times when Theroux comes across as a righteously self-absorbed millennial and delivers sanctimonious comments on race politics from the vantage point of a traveler. That someone from America, where race is the primary form of identification, should pontificate on the subject is laughable.
But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable book. Fresh Air Fiend is a wonderful collection of essays that highlight the main themes of a wonderful writer’s explorations over the years.