It's like something out of a John Irving or Anne Tyler novel. A domineering mother raises a large family in which two sons become writers. One, the elder, is the epitome of the pretentiously academic snob, deriving perverse satisfaction from reports of how difficult his books are to read. This elder is a poet, a painter, a scathing satirist.
A younger brother is a prolific novelist and travel writer. One of the most respected in the field. He's been all over the world, going to remote and difficult places, writing successful travel books. He also writes novels and short stories set in the exotic locales he has visited.
Two respected writers from the same parents. One might assume that this was from a happy and nurturing family.
If Paul Theroux's Mother Land is to be believed, nothing could be further from the truth.
The bothers are Alexander and Paul Theroux. Alexander being the more scholarly older sibling, and Paul is the traveler and (sometimes) bestselling writer. Reportedly these two have such animosity toward one another that they have either barely spoken or have not spoken at all in many years.
Not only that, Alexander scathingly reviewed Paul's semi-autobiographical 1996 novel, My Other Life, calling his more successful brother's novels "beach reads", and claiming that his work was just a notch above Danielle Steele. He goes on to not only trash the book, but to to assail Paul, claiming (among other things) that he eats prunes for breakfast and has bowel troubles.
It's all a very curious matter, and interested parties have speculated about the reasons behind the feud.
Some answers, though veiled in fiction, can be found in Paul Theroux's astonishing new novel, Mother Land.
Mother Land is a long, confounding, hilarious, horrifying story of a family held under the spell of a scheming mother. Eshewing conventional plot, Paul Theroux examines in painful detail the obssessive hold that his mother held upon her children. While ostensibly a work of fiction, there are too many parallels with the facts of the Theroux family to consider the book to be entirely untrue.
Paul Theroux is a shrewd observer of minute character detail and the keenest sense of atmosphere and place of any writer I know of. In sickening but blackly funny detail, often repeating himself time and again, Paul takes readers deep into the madness of these siblings. It had to be a painful yet exorcising experience.
Mother Land isn't a book I can recommend to just anyone. It's dense, maddening at times, but it's also powerful and moving. The book is also scarier than most horror novels I've read.
I've always said that horror is a genre about confrontation rather than escape, and being faced with how parts of my life and family resemble the dysfunctional family in Mother Land was not easy.
Equally hilarious and horrifying, I loved Mother Land without reservation. I can say with utter confidence that I will not read a better novel this year. Probably not this entire decade.