Real _ magicallsm

Paul Theroux’s latest novel delves deep into American obsessions. Thom Dibdin spoke to him about food, cooking and American cults.

Millroy is a magician. Not merely a prestidigitator who can make elephants disappear during his act at the Barnstable County Fair, but a real. spooky. hands- off magician. The eponymous hero of Paul Theroux‘s latest novel, he has control of all nine bodily functions by virtue of his stn'ct vegetarianism; he never eats anything with a face or a mother.

When thirteen-year-old Jilly Farina sees him at the Fair, she is so entranced by his magical powers that she doesn‘t think twice about leaving her violent family and climbing aboard Millroy’s Airstream trailer to be his assistant. But the magician is a man obsessed: they soon quit the fair and embark on a journey which will take them to Boston and the world of children’s television. where Millroy preaches the virtues of a strict diet and even starts a diner.

Millroy The Magician satirises America's

Paul Theroux: satirising America's obsessions with food. fat, longevity. and religious cults.

lot of religions are American and take no notice of the rest ofthe world.‘ says Theroux. pointing to the Mormons. Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah‘s

Food is one of Theroux's own obsessions. ‘At the end of the day i find cooking to be a genuine relaxation.‘ he says. ‘It keeps your hands busy. you can listen to the radio. you can drink. it is one ofthe pleasures of life. Making a meal for other people is a big thing. That is a big influence on the book. because cooking for other people means that you are mothering the people. you are then responsible for their health and well-being. it's not just like giving them a drink. but you are actually making a concoction and they are eating it. The psychology of eating is really interesting.‘

‘When i started to conceive this book i thought about the food that's mentioned in the Bible.’ he continues. ‘lt‘s really good food. the sort that people want to eat or talk about eating; basic tribal food from simple people in the desert who were pretty hardy. The relationship between that and what people eat today is quite interesting. [just thought that if

Witnesses. ‘l had always wanted to write a book about a person who has that kind of obsession himself. about a man who is virtually starting his own sect. not exactly his own religion but who has a revelation ofthe kind that a lot of people have in the States.‘

Millroy‘s revelation is that the food mentioned in the Bible is not only healthy. but positively health giving. How much. then. has Theroux invested his own personality in the slightly crazed. charismatic Millroy? ‘Probably quite a lot. strangely cnough.’ he admits. ‘You can‘t write convincingly if you don‘t

; share some aspect of a person‘s belief. But Millroy is

Theroux’s eponymous hero has control

of all nine bodily functions by virtue of

his strict vegetarianism; he never eats anything with a face or a mother.

someone got that in his head. what would they do?’ Novelists are like magicians. creating characters from their imaginations. Millroy The Magician is as spellbinding as Theroux’s previous best. standing alongside The Mosquito Coast. almost as a companion volume. ‘l do think there is an aspect of being a magician to writing.‘ he agrees. lfthere‘s no magic then really the writing is not up to much . . .’

obsessions with food. fat. longevity, and religious cults. ‘America is a country of religious fanatics; a

also a frustrated author. That sort of figure does , represent an aspect ofthe writer's personality.‘

I Hamilton.

M illroy the Magician is published by Hamish

T rfalseo . o I \\:\\_

Barely a year after the wonderful Whitbread-winnlng ‘Poor Things’, the

3, “it”

literary world’s favourite self-styled / ,y/ ' / '2 ; .‘i ‘stout, elderly, balding, spectacled, '4‘ if Jay/ruggw/‘L (g) ,7: astinatic Glasgow pedestrian’, “\‘\ 3, r- 1' * if." “it. Alasdair Gray, is back with a new book ' *i,_ 55:3,, 3“ . of stories, a fourteen-strong I r 4}. ; ,4 ‘\\ collection entitled ‘Ten Tales Tall and g7. lg-“ .\' .. Tlue’, which sees Gray tackling the i tit/w . ,f/fiqfiss'; \ " genres of ‘sexual comedy, fantasy, i I ‘t y , f.) I t social minis, satire and : k: 4/ -' autobiography’ In characteristically : a, 531% i .\ i idiosyncratic fashion, complete with d \ _. r \- his distinctive illustrations. The spee i , . of delivery is explained by the fact 9 "““" 5"" 3 ’°" “"3" M I". I'M’ cmcow” actual” 0' Lanark’, the flute! novels have M‘ M of m "0'", a generally 0" as quite small book which Gray describes almost as a ; ""098 that "'0" 9'“ "P3 m mu.» 5 Kicking off with a playfully

q mm rpm, 11am! making it postmodernist take on the notion of would In a my: no” um you” b. i “finding a volce’, with a series of m 01 um m; h. "yum, “and n i pastiche openings sampled from last my my, big, new the basic ! Melville, Blake, Charlotte Bronte and l“, M I a m “In”. nag, sundry 0th.”, the b0“ continues Ill suddenly drew in many other ideas and l similarly capricious vein - a My.” I" b... mu." 0'.“ beautifully simple story of the think, actually, that with the exception "MGM In 8 MWM’ 9809 W009 his

first steps towards acceptance of the exploitation which will frustrate his dreams; an ‘internal memorandum’ from a woman going quietly off her head at the absurdities and iniquities of her company’s working practices; a woman reading theology in a pub, having escaped her busy family life to wrestle with her religious crisis in peace, being pestered by a regular who wants to know if she’s a lesbian; a group of passengers on an ultra- privatised train hurtling towards an unavoidable fatal crash. Several

' stories, Gray says, were inspired partly

by actual incidents, notany ‘Fictionai Exits’, which features the real-life tale of the police breaking into a blind

. man’s house, having mistaken his

address for that of a drug dealer, then arresting him for assault - one of the ‘fictional exits’ being the cover-story which enabled them to get away with it.

‘l was told that story by a lawyer friend of mine and found it quite

unforgettable,’ says Gray. ‘It kept

recurring in my mind, sort of, “people ought to know about this”, and I had the thought of writing a wee political tract, but that would just have been

1 my voice talking very glumly about

they way things are going, so

i eventually I had the idea of putting it

g together with something else. i think

; the notion of a story only happens

i when there are two ideas that I’ve had

5 quite separately, and which taken

i separately seem like a bit too much of

I a chore to make interesting, and l

suddenly realise that by bringing them together i can spark off different possibilities.’

: Gray is still working away on his

l now-famous ‘Anthology of Prefaces’, a

i labour of love which is, due to the

necessity of supporting himself by

i ‘the pleasant exercise of writing and

l illustrating popular fiction,’ still some

: way from completion. ‘Like always, I’m preparing to return to it,’ Gray says. ‘The problem is that actually to return

i to it as I want to do, I really need

i three clear years of doing nothing but

l-work on it; I’m pretty sure I could get

i it done by 1996 if I didn’t have to write

, anything else.’ (Sue Wilson)

; Ten Tales Tall and True is published by

f Bloomsbury at £14.99.

gAlasdair Gray will be giving readings

f in bookshops around Edinburgh and

iGlasgow during Scottish Book

éFortnlght - see Events listings for


The List 8—21 October 1993 69