Theroux’s 40th book is the novel writers usually produce early in their careers: a Portrait of the Artist as Unregenerate Egomaniac.
He’s Slade Steadman, the 50-year-old blocked author of a single spectacularly successful book, an account of his world travels accomplished without passport entitled—ominously enough—Trespassing. We first meet Slade accompanied by his girlfriend Ava, a doctor who takes lengthy leaves of absence to serve as his companion, muse and imaginative sexual partner. They’re en route to the Ecuadorian jungle, where (along with two Babbitt-like American couples and sinister German freelancer-freebooter Manfred Steiger) they take a perilous “drug tour” and Slade discovers the visionary benefits of an indigenous hallucinogen, ayahuasca. Back home at his lavish Martha’s Vineyard mansion, Slade treats himself to daily bouts of drug-induced blindness, reasoning that he “sees” more deeply and truly without conventional eyesight—and luxuriates in the admiration of wealthy neighbors and numerous visiting celebrities, notably President Bill Clinton. Despite Ava’s warnings that his fabricated disability may backfire, Slade persists with his revelatory hallucinations, dividing his energies among Ava’s ministrations, the completion of “a sexual history in the form of a novel” (The Book of Revelation) and lubricious memoirs of his early sexual experiences. During a book tour, sans Ava, the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupts, Manfred Steiger reappears (threatening to expose Slade’s dangerous experiments), and the consequences of all his blindnesses lead him to a climactic confrontation on a Vineyard beach, a return to Ecuador in search of a cure and an ambivalent ending that’s either healing or final catastrophe. If Theroux’s latest aims to portray its protagonist’s solipsistic self-destruction, it’s of some interest as a sardonic cautionary tale. If (as seems likelier) it’s another preening semiautobiographical tome related to My Secret History (2000) and My Other Life (1996), it’s another illustration of its author’s increasingly bankrupt imagination.
Blinding Light fails to dazzle, or even illuminate.