My Other Life

Dwight Garner reviews the autonovelography "My Other Life" by Paul Theroux.

By Dwight Garner
Published September 9, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Autonovelography. That's the (creaky) term a Times of London book critic has come up with to describe the recent spate of thinly disguised memoirs passing themselves off as fiction. Deplore the trend if you will, but no writer in recent years has more gleefully tweaked the facts of his own life than Paul Theroux.

First in "My Secret History" (1989) and now in "My Other Life," Theroux blends incidents from his own life with wholly imaginary ones, and the resulting books are vigorous meditations on the shifting nature of identity. Theroux being Theroux, the books are also prickly, provocative and wildly revealing.

"My Other Life" introduces us to a narrator named Paul Theroux, who has led a life quite similar to the author's own: He has written books called "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "The Mosquito Coast"; he has spent time in Africa and taught in Singapore; lived with his wife and two children in London; is now divorced and spends his summers on Cape Cod. But the similarities end there. Or do they?

"My Other Life" is full of moments where you're left to wonder where fact ends and fiction begins. Essentially plotless, the book is a series of episodic, deftly constructed chapters that question our ability to control our sense of self. In one, a woman who was described unkindly in "The Great Railway Bazaar" bumps into the author years later, and confronts him and exacts her revenge: "You think people are insects to catch and exhibit," she tells him. "Their clothes. Their eating habits, their groans. And if they're not ugly you'll make them ugly..."

These Borgesian moments pile up quickly: Theroux meets a elderly German writer whose life story is almost exactly like his own; he withholds his identity from a manic female fan who tells him he should read Paul Theroux's books; he tries to convince some drug-addled teens, who have rented the film made from his novel "Half Moon Street," that he is indeed the author of the book.

As compelling as these (and many other) moments are, the truest pleasures in "My Other Life" are often the incidental ones. Theroux strews miniature essays and crackling observations as he strolls along. Here he is, for example, on fans who expect writers to look like movie stars: "For every second-rater with lovely hair and good clothes there are fifty disappointments." And on British eating habits: [they are always] "loading their forks as though they were baiting a hook."

Polishing off the last chapter of "My Other Life," the only fact you can only be certain of this: Paul Theroux couldn't write a boring sentence if he tried.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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