Thursday, January 27, 2011

Literary Bite: The Elephanta Suite

I've come to realize that a good author can make you love their characters, but a great author can make you despise them. It takes some serious literary magic to make readers hate someone but still want to read the book, and that's why Paul Theroux is (in my humble opinion) a great author. I loved his non-fiction Dark Star Safari, and The Elephanta Suite is an equally great book in its own bizarre way.

Let me explain. The cover tell us it is, "Thought-provoking...beautifully paced, by turns moving, sexy, and disturbing." That sounds ridiculous, but as I read the book I came to think Huh, yeah, that's actually exactly what this book is.

The Elephanta Suite is not one narrative, it is three consecutive stories that share one common plot point and a few common themes. The most obvious commonality is that at some point the main characters in each of the stories stay in the Elephanta Suite, a fancy hotel room in Mumbai.

The first story is about an older couple staying at an ashram in the Himalayan foothills. The second story is about a businessman who facilitates outsourcing relationships between America and India. The third story is about a recent college graduate who travels to Bangalore alone and tries to make her way while finding herself.

Despite the fact that the stories are all distinct, the book feels very cohesive because there are common themes throughout. All of the stories deal with Americans traveling to India. These characters are trying to lose themselves in the most populous country in the world, but eventually are dismayed to find that in India, someone is always watching. The stories are very sexual - infidelity, prostitution, and rape are all addressed and each story's turning point is somehow related to sexual transformation. 

I found that the men in The Elephanta Suite are particularly detestable. I wondered if Theroux thinks that little of his own gender, but then I realized that maybe he's just that good of a writer. The semi-disturbing encounters in this book definitely serve to drive his points home.

And he approaches India in a very unique way. From TIME: "Theroux is the rare writer to see that the fascination, the power of India today, lies in the commute between the two [India and America]. His characters begin in manicured, air-conditioned places, but it is the clammy grasp of desire, the smells and the slippery deals of the back alleyways, that really bring them out. The human bestiary has rarely found a more spirited observer."

Definitely read this book. I know I'm saying it's disturbing, but more for the ideas than anything explicit (if this were a movie it'd be PG-13). That's the beauty of it - Theroux's writing is subtle enough to invoke powerful emotions almost without the reader realizing it.