The rhythm of dysfunction involves a lot of repetition.
In broken families, the same destructive behaviors emerge blindly over and over again until true crack-up is achieved. The great Australian novelist Christina Stead (“The Man Who Loved Children”) knew this. So does American writer Paul Theroux in his latest novel, “Mother Land.”
Theroux has trafficked in troubled families before, notably his 1982 masterpiece, “The Mosquito Coast,” about a utopian experiment gone wrong in the jungles of Honduras. But in “Mother Land” he takes it to a whole new level. He also raises a question few writers have the nerve to ask: What do we do when we start feeling too damn old to deal with a parent who has always been a psychic minefield and now looks as though she “would outlive us all”?
Narrator Jay Justus is a twice-divorced, once-successful novelist in late midlife who is pulled deeper into his family’s orbit than he would like to be after his father dies.
“What I had dreaded most had come to pass,” he laments. “I was back home, with Mother.”
He and his seven siblings (including Angela, who died at birth but has remained a guiding light for Mother ever since) all keep an eye on their widowed but still thriving octogenarian mom on Cape Cod. But their concern for her transforms them in ugly ways.
“In old age,” Jay writes, “we embarked on our true, awful childhood — infantile fogies ruled by their triumphant mother.”
In descending order, the Justus children are: Fred, a lawyer; Floyd, the other writer in the family; Jay himself; sisters Franny and Rose, both schoolteachers; Hubby, an ER nurse; and Gilbert, “a diplomat, cheerfully oblique,” whose career takes him to all corners of the Arab world.
Jay readily admits that his take on Mother isn’t likely to match that of his siblings. “Mother’s contradictions, her moods, her injustice, her disloyalty, and her unshakable favoritism,” he says, “made her different to every one of us; we each dealt with our own version of her.”
Tangled in ever-shifting alliances, they harshly mock and undermine one another. Calling in to check on Mother, they wind up ensnarled in a toxic game of Telephone that exaggerates and distorts all that goes on between them and their matriarch (“Queen Lear,” as Jay calls her).
But can we trust Jay on this?
At times he doesn’t fully concede how badly he’s behaving. For him, it’s a thrill when he and Floyd break into Mother’s house to sneak a look at her financial records and see who she’s giving money to. His rivalry with Floyd erupts in public when Floyd writes a savage review of Jay’s latest novel. Jay’s own jibes at his sisters are even nastier. Who is this guy? And how close is this purported fiction to the real-life travails of the Theroux family?
Theroux has been down this path before in “My Secret History” and “My Other Life” (which prompted a scorched-earth Boston Magazine review from his brother, author Alexander Theroux, that’s quoted verbatim in “Mother Land”). The roman à clef elements don’t end there. But while they’re distracting, they don’t much matter. This family, whether fictional or not, works on its own terms.
Jay’s wariness of his mother goes so deep (“She sensed my happiness the way a predator senses crippled prey”) that it’s hard to see how it could ever be remedied. And it goes the other way too: “[S]he was right not to trust me.” His own sons wish he would get over it. “Grandma is a hundred years old,” one says. “The statute of limitations on family rancor has run out.”
Yet “Mother Land” isn’t just a hatchet job. It’s too antic and unpredictable in its sympathies to be that. Jay’s portrait of the verbally extravagant Floyd (“He hated a pithy declarative sentence like this one”) is a treat, whether they’re feuding or in cahoots. His take on his progenitor reveals as much about Jay as it does about her. When he writes, “Mother wanted praise, needed attention, craved to be noticed and marveled at, and like a tantrum-prone two-year-old, she wanted independence,” he could be describing himself. If this is a self-portrait, it’s a scathing one.
Theroux’s prose is suitably silky in its insinuations and vicious in its ability to claw. The sheer slipperiness of Jay’s observations on the Justus family leaves you uncertain how to evaluate any of them, including Jay himself. It’s no accident that, the more he harps on Mother, the more elusive she becomes.
“I looked for a villain,” he writes. “But it was Mother’s genius that she could seem both tyrant and victim, oppressor and oppressed.”
Theroux, fusing anguish and glee as he picks at the same raw scabs for 500-plus pages, evokes something truly memorable: a realm many come from, to which some of us have no desire to return.
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 509 pp., $28
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.