BOOK REVIEW: A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

A Dead Hand: A Crime in CalcuttaA Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

A Dead Hand opens with the protagonist, Jerry Delfont, receiving an unexpected and unusual letter. Delfont is a traveling writer who is temporarily in Calcutta. The letter is from an American businesswoman and philanthropist who seems to have gone native in India. The woman, Merrill “Ma” Unger, asks Delfont to investigate a mysterious event involving her son’s boyfriend, a young Indian man named Rajat.

Rajat claims to have woken up one night in his cheap hotel room to find the dead body of a boy on the floor. Rajat panicked and left, and is living in fear that he will be picked by the police.

The book in part traces Delfont’s investigation of this mysterious body, and in part describes his burgeoning relationship with “Ma” Unger. The former is slow going through the first 2/3 of the book, and at some points one wonders if Delfont has forgotten about the investigation altogether.

The title has a dual meaning. It describes both the writer’s block Delfont is suffering at the beginning of the book and the actual physical hand that turns up as the sole remaining trace of the dead boy who turns out really was in Rajat’s room.

Coming from famed traveling writer Paul Theroux, it’s no surprise that the development of setting is phenomenal. Theroux not only gives one a sense of the sights, sounds, and scents of Calcutta, he also gives the reader insight into the human dimension of India through a number of supporting characters. There is a passionate young woman who writes poetry and practices the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu. She is a strong, bright, and independent woman but is stuck in a world of arranged marriages and sexual repression. Despite the official end of the caste system, we see completely subservient Indians as well as others who think they are beyond talking to a lowly writer.

The plotting is solid. It’s neither exceptional nor so flat or formulaic as to be boring. I, who am not particularly good at foreseeing plot twists, did anticipate the ending–at least in broad brush stroke terms. However, the book kept me interested and reading. There was a clear narrative arc and the main character definitely undergoes a change over the course of the book (more on that below.)

In my opinion, the book’s weakness is in character development, and specifically Delfont’s character. We are introduced to a Delfont who is having a tough time, but is essentially a likable guy with his head on straight. However, as he begins to fall for “Ma” Unger, he seems increasingly pathetic. Specifically, he falls into this weird relationship in which he seems to see her both sexually and maternally, and–like a schoolboy with a crush–he wants to do anything he can to please her and to gain her attention. Now, being pathetic is a little like being crazy. If the character knows or suspects they are crazy, then how crazy can they really be? Because Delfont recognizes he’s being pathetic, he remains a sympathetic character. However, I think Theroux over hammers the degree to which Delfont is smitten until we begin to think he is obsessed. The problem is that it makes his transformation and that of his relationship with “Ma”, which happens like the flip of a switch, less credible.

All and all, I would recommend this book. I think it’s particularly interesting for one who wants greater insight into India and, specifically, Calcutta.

View all my reviews

WRITING DEVICES: The Author Cameo in A Dead Hand

I’ll soon finish reading a novel by Paul Theroux called A Dead Hand. I won’t get into the details of the book in this post because I’ll do a review later, but there’s a writing device in it that really intrigued me. Theroux inserts himself into the novel in a cameo role as a competitor to the protagonist. That is to say, the main character is a traveling writer who writes mostly magazine articles, while Theroux a prolific writer famous for travelogues such as The Great Railway Bazaar and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,  as well as for many novels which are written with a travel writer’s sensibility for location. (A Dead Hand takes place in and around Calcutta, India.)

I enjoyed the author cameo. It would only work well for a writer like Theroux, one who is both well-known and, because of his nonfiction work, who readers have a feel for as a person. Still, I couldn’t think of another novel I’ve read in which this has been done. I’ve only read Theroux’s nonfiction so far, so maybe this is a running gag with him.

Inserting himself offers some opportunity for adding humor. For example, there’s a part in which the main character’s friend, who is also a go-between who introduces the two writers, says, “He [Theroux] said he wanted to take the train from Battambang to Phnom Penh.”

To which the main character replies, “He would. The bus is quicker!”

This technique also gives one the impression that we are getting some inside insight into the writer. When the main character mistrusts the author, how are we to process that?

Granted it’s a little like an actor looking into the camera and talking straight to the audience.

I’m interested to hear if this is a more widespread technique than I’m aware of? Who else does this?