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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: Paul Theroux's "The Furies"

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. However, since I get my issue anywhere from Wednesday to Saturday, sometimes it takes me a while...

"The Furies," by Paul Theroux

4 Stars (out of 5)

This week I review the short story, "The Furies" by Paul Theroux. Theroux has always been kind of a favorite writer of mine. Known mostly for stories set in exotic locations, his stories are often laden with incipient or fully developed danger, prurient lust and the darker side of human love and sexuality. He wrote the book that became the somewhat-forgettable Harrison Ford film, Mosquito Coast, which still stands as probably his most famously adapted work. Anyway...

Synopsis: "The Furies" is set in Massachusetts and centers around a middle-aged (nearly senior-age) dentist who, in the midst of his second marriage to a much younger woman, is haunted by a series of encounters with the women whom he slept with, or tried to sleep with, over the years. However, when his former conquests come back to him they are not the young women he once tried to sleep with, but rather they have aged--like him. Apparently he was a man obsessed with younger women, and the sight of these women as they exist in real life, now, with years piled on them, repulses him. His life begins to unravel when his wife begins to understand the true nature of the man she's married, and that she has been caught in the same trap as the women who are coming back to haunt him.

Critique: I always love Theroux's writing for its utterly invisible quality; he does not write "beautiful" sentences, per se, but his prose is so clean and weightless that it recedes into the background and it never seems like writing. Therefore he manages to put all of the attention onto the story. The other great thing about this story, as with a lot of Theroux's work, is that he finds a nice intersection between character and story; not only is the story thought-provoking and intelligent, but it actually goes somewhere and pulls you through.

The story itself, with the repeated, ghost-like encounters with former lovers/conquests veers pretty close to Magical Realism, a realm I'm not really in love with. But the furies, let us remember, were characters from Greek/Roman mythology who bring vengeance on the living and the dead, so he can be forgiven for getting a little "magical." That, I suppose, was the point. Theroux keeps the encounters plausible enough to stay "mostly" grounded in reality, however, and the story never gets too fantastical except when one of the women shows up in his house at night.

Not really 100% sure what the takeaway is here, except to illustrate the folly of chasing youth, in others and in oneself. But, there really doesn't have to be a point, does there? I don't think so. Sometimes its enough to delve completely into a new world for 20 minutes for no other reason than entertainment, and above all, that's what this story does: it entertains and has at least a basic moral, without piling it on.


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