These two novels are by American writers in the prime of their reputations who now live in England. Each novel is set in New England, and each is about a family, and about a family romance. Neither is proof of what has recently been asserted—that the English and American languages are diverging. In spite of the American vernacular they need to use, and in spite of the ethnic readings which each of them invites, neither is unmistakably the work of an American, rather than an Englishman: indeed, the ethos, or ethnos, of Theroux’s novel could, in part, be called Anglo-American. David Plante’s book is grave, tight, and deliberate. Paul Theroux’s is loose and approximate, fast-moving, given over to impact and commotion and emotion. Never a dull moment.
Mr. Theroux’s Picture Palace examines the relationship between the personal life of an artist and the art it produces (or, as we shall see, doesn’t produce). The story is told by a celebrated photographer, Maude Coffin Pratt, born in 1906 and now in her seventies, who is engaged, as the sole surviving tenant of the family house on Cape Cod, in looking through her old pictures, piled in the adjacent windmill. With her is trendy Frank Fusco, who is mounting a Maude Pratt retrospective, bedizened with stereophonic sound effects. This work causes charming, ill-natured Maude to resuffer her past life.
At one point she had come to realize that she was
a photographer for love. Orlando was the reason for my camera, and he would make it superfluous. I had no ambition beyond tempting him to its darkened side, and while my fame was crucial to this it struck me as foolish to pursue the lonely distraction of art beyond the room where we made a sandwich of our passion.
Orlando is her brother, and her designs on him are thwarted when she finds that, having been prepared by her for incest, he chooses to commit it with her sister Phoebe instead, in the windmill. Maude witnesses and records their embrace, and then, for a term, goes blind, staying on, Agonistes, at or around the mill with these slaves of passion, her screwing siblings. For all its fast moving, this is a densely literary book.
It is also a romantic book, evoking as it does a commitment which takes two people out of the world, a commitment which Maude aims at and misses. She dreams of Orlando and herself as “two images stealing together, as if we existed as fixed lovers in a field beyond the moon. Our ecstatic light-beams twisted toward earth, brother and sister, to be joined.” She is “fascinated by double images,” and imagines the witnessed incestuous embrace as a meeting of doubles. But, in modern times, duality is a matter of more selves than just two. She learns that “schizophrenia is merely a mistake in arithmetic. When I heard someone described as a split personality I thought, Only a schizo? Why choose two …