Paul Theroux on the Contentment of the Everyman (New Yorker)

Paul Theroux on the Contentment of the Everyman

Your novella “The Vanishing Point” tells the story of a
well-intentioned carpenter, Guy, who takes pride in what he does but at
the same time seems almost completely ambitionless. Why do you think he
is content to take whatever life throws at him?

This is a great question, but I should address it by saying that I was
inspired to write this story after reading for the umpteenth time one of
my favorite long stories, Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (which he wrote
late in life). It is a masterpiece of compression, insight, subtlety,
and compassion. The story recounts the whole life of Felicité, a
housemaid and nanny to a wealthy family, who is resolute,
self-possessed, and clear-sighted, very proud of everything she does, be
it cooking, washing, or sewing. Like Felicité, Guy is self-possessed,
not timid, but shy. He wants his independence, wishes to choose his own
life, and, above all, he is a dedicated reader. He is that person who
works contentedly in the day with the happy assurance that back home on
the bedside table is a book he longs to continue reading.

And maybe this is too much info, but when the idea of “The Vanishing
Point” came to mind, I was about to spend a month travelling in Mexico,
and I thought I would occupy myself by writing it there, as I normally
write in the mornings, wherever I happen to be. Turned out that I did
most of it in Oaxaca, writing in longhand, as I always do, last
November, during the Day of the Dead festival, while I was taking
lessons in Spanish at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. Guy kept me

Except for his stint in the Navy, Guy spends his whole life within
quite a small area in Maine. Why do you think that is?

Folks in Maine have deep roots. The communities are tight and
self-sufficient because the winters are so harsh. Long, dark winters can
produce heavy drinkers, but also passionate readers. It’s not odd to
find a well-read carpenter, lobsterman, electrician, or farmer—many
intellectuals are also organic farmers in Maine. In an age of
restlessness and disruption, I wanted to do justice to such overlooked
Americans who, after a stint in the Army or the Navy, return home and
never leave. After all, it is home.

Guy goes to work for an abstract painter—who paints targets, circles,
chevrons, and other geometrical shapes—and Guy describes his work as
color-field painting. Did you have a particular artist in mind when
creating Elliott Stanger?

Many color-field painters fled New York City and found congenial places
to work in New England. I know lots of painters, and I am always
fascinated to learn how dependent some of them are on helpers in the
studio—men and women who are fully occupied in the creation of the
art works, whether as carpenters, stretchers of canvases, or (amazing to
me) sprayers of paint. I am also somewhat shocked when I find that a
writer—usually a historian or a biographer—uses a team of researchers.
This occasionally lands them in hot water; Doris Kearns Goodwin was
charged with plagiarism when it turned out that she hadn’t actually
written some sentences in several of her books, sentences that were
drawn from other sources and served up by researchers. In my story, Guy
helps Stanger create his paintings but, of course, is given no credit.

Guy seems to be tangential to the lives of those he meets, from Mrs.
Semple to Lane Frater. He’s never truly central for them—or else they
simply make use of him and his skills. Why do you think that is? Why
does he never seem to resent or be angered by others’ treatment of him?

Guy’s ego is in good repair, which makes him generous and serene, as
well as fully aware of the reality of his situation. The people he meets
are needy, self-centered, some of them cheats or users. He understands
and sympathizes with them, and is glad to be of use. He is kind,
watchful, and wants to be helpful—a rare person, but such people exist.
Because he is self-possessed and compassionate, he isn’t resentful, nor
is he angered by others’ treatment of him. My father was kindly and
unflappable in this way.

Was Guy’s name chosen for its Everyman quality?

Oh, yes, carefully chosen!

Much of the story revolves around the notion of a “vanishing point”—a
point at which all lines seem to converge and one can see no farther.
What does that point mean to Guy, and in Guy’s life?

The paradox is that the vanishing point is discerned only as an obscure
point, yet something is happening in that obscurity. For nearly all his
life, Guy is confident that he will be all right. Then, when he’s much
older, and ill, he begins to doubt, but his instincts save him, because
he has been frugal throughout his life. Those canvases that Stanger gave
him, which he kept, because he never throws anything away, the paintings
without a vanishing point are important at a vanishing point.

The novella opens and closes with this sense of Guy alone in a room,
content in his solitude, “swallowed whole” by the silence and peace
around him. Was that all he ever wanted?

You get old—I am headed that way—and you think, What was it I wanted,
all along? Is anything more going to happen? Is this the horrible
Aubade” of the Philip Larkin poem? I regard it as an immense piece of
luck that I have it both ways. As a writer, I am able to chronicle this
condition—I can ask the question and also answer it. Guy didn’t know
that at the end of his life a windfall would be welcome, which is why
the story ends that way, with a reward. I have written a great deal of
fiction about disturbance—fear, failure, isolation—situations that I’ve
experienced. But I wanted to write something that also reflects the luck
and gratitude I’ve felt in my own life, and have seen in the lives of
people I admire. These things seldom appear in fiction—or, at any rate,
in my fiction.

We discussed the idea of making this a shorter story, but it just
didn’t work. Why do you think it needed to be told at novella length?
(And why didn’t it become a full-fledged novel?)

When we attempted to shorten this piece, it lost something of its
movement and flavor and tone. I think those same qualities would be lost
if it were lengthened or plumped out to novel length. (But Thomas Mann
wrote “Felix Krull” as a short story, then made it a novel. And Joseph
Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” began as a short story called “Verloc.”)

You’ve worked in so many forms, from journalism to travelogues to
memoirs to novels and short stories. Does one of these genres feel more
like home for you than the others?

I am clearest in my intention, and most satisfied that I am doing the
right thing, when I am expressing in my writing an aspect of my inmost
being, and doing so—I hope—with some sort of originality and wit. I try
to be scrupulous (“travelogues, memoirs, novels . . .”), but I often
suspect that everything I write is fiction.


via New Yorker

August 7, 2017 at 02:04AM