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Paul Theroux: “The Furies”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Paul Theroux’s “The Furies” was originally published in the February 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Click for a larger image.

Betsy

“The Furies” reveals why so few people go to their 40th high school reunion – the badly treated old friends, girlfriends, boyfriends. There is history, for sure, but not all of it is good.

In “Dear Life,” published this past fall, Alice Munro ended: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.”

This feels like the story Paul Theroux wrote in response. If it is in conversation, I like the totally different tone, the tip of the hat to Dante, Bunyan, Dickens, and Wilde, the numerous one-liners, the audacious precision of the his hero’s trial, and the hallucinatory quality.

Dr. Ray Testa (think test, testes, protest, testament) throws over old Angie (think angry, think angel) for the beautiful new model, his dental hygienist, Shelby (think silent, catlike, overpowered for the road, wildly indulgent, expensive, supercar).

Angie unexpectedly lays a curse on him, just when he had thought she might wail about how much she would miss him. Angrily, she says, “I made it easy for you.” Not this time.

Determined to show off at his 40th reunion, Ray insists that he and Shelby must go. Instead of triumph, however, Ray begins a journey of reunion with people he had forgotten he’d wronged – three girlfriends from his hometown, a college fling, a night in med school, the wife of an artist he “admired,” a pass in the hallway. Each one of these women appears to him in hallucinatory haggery; they seem to him much older, inexplicably, maybe even unjustifiably bitter.

The reader recognizes some of these situations: lies, broken promises, denials, casual appropriations. Ray doesn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of what he is hearing; it doesn’t seem to him that these women have the right to claim he has ruined their lives, or that they have a right to remember what he has forgotten.

I love the fact that he has been called to task. I couldn’t put the story down. I recommend the story to you.

But I’m not sure I could recommend it to my two good, beautiful friends whose husbands did a Ray Testa on them. From this vantage point (almost 70), it feels as if the Furies have let this guy off easy.

To have him merely lectured, to have him merely realize he is old, to have him merely lose his trophy wife – not enough!  Ray’s Furies are not furious enough!

Trevor

I agree, Betsy. Ray gets off easy, despite the fact that in the end he is alone. Still, I enjoyed this story, which I took to be a rather straightforward with no “message,” just revenge and the grotesque.

The story begins thus:

“I now belong to an incredibly exclusive club,” Ray Testa said in his speech at his wedding reception. He savored the moment, then winked and added, “There are not many men who can say that they’re older than their father-in-law.”

It’s chuckles all around. People seem fine with the fact that Ray, fifty-eight, is marrying his thirty-one-year-old hygienist, Shelby (his father-in-law is fifty-six). Ray and Shelby havce known each other for a while and their love is true.

Well, it’s not all chuckles. Ray is about to find that the curse his discarded wife Angie muttered when he divorced her is to come true:

I know I should say I wish you well, but I wish you ill, with all my heart. I’ve made it easy for you. I hope you suffer now with that woman who’s taken you from me. These women who carry on with married men are demons.”

And vengeance (and demons) come. It’s almost time for Ray’s fortieth high school reunion, and he’s anxious to take Shelby. She’s much less anxious. At first, running into people, even those with whom he had a past, is no big deal. Soon, though, three of his old girlfriends are almost shrieking at him: “Everything that he’d forgotten was still real and immediate to them — the prom, the lake, the yearbook, Miss Balsam’s third-grade class.” It’s even more terrifying when these women follow him and Shelby when they try to escape the party.

Naturally, Shelby is terrified. At first, her terror might be directed to these women, but it doesn’t take long before she fears Ray himself. After all, women from his past just keep popping up, always old and slightly grotesque.

At first, Ray takes some pride in the fact that these women have aged so poorly. It allows him to dismiss them as pitiful creatures who allowed their disappointment to warp their bodies. And, after all, he is with Shelby. But Shelby, after weeks of torture, says “They all look like you.”

He’s built a life on taking advantage of the present and and forgetting the past. Why can’t Shelby forgive?

He wanted to tell her that most people have flawed pasts, have acted selfishly at some point in their lives, and then moved on. New experiences take the place of the old ones, new memories, better memories; and all the old selves become interred in a forgetfulness that is itself merciful. This was the process of aging, each new decade burying the previous one; that long-ago self was a stranger.

Of course, these past selves have all combined to create the present self, something Shelby understands.

7 thoughts on “Paul Theroux: “The Furies””

  1. Betsy says:

    Trevor! Think – the “Shelby Cobra” (the full name of the supercar). Thus Shelby, the silent and snaky trophy wife, creates of Ray’s marriage a disastrous compact with the devil. This allusion takes the whole story to another level and works wonderfully well. Think of Ray calling Shelby’s father for help, saying, “She’s like a stranger.” And the father replies, “That’s my Shelby.” With thanks to my husband for the tip – which changes everything!.

  2. Trevor says:

    Interesting, Betsy, I hadn’t considered Shelby as being any part of the problem but merely a victim. However, you’re right: her father’s mysterious statements suggest something else lurking below the surface.

  3. Rosalind Kurzer says:

    Ray Testa (testosterone) is a man that is in stage one of moral development. A real sleaze.
    I recalled the few instances when my paths crossed one of these animals.

    I didn’t think it was a great story, but certainly one to discuss. Why did Shelby’s father agree that she is like a stranger? What was the meaning of “each person in our past is an aspect of us”. I don’t believe that.

  4. Betsy says:

    Rosalind – to me, if you buy the “Shelby Cobra” allusion (the name of a supercar), then you have to think of her as a snake and the daughter of the devil, it would be natural for her to be distant, cold, and alien. I think Theroux is trying to remind us Ray has made a compact with the devil.

    As for “each person in our past is an aspect of us”, this is where Theroux’s construction confuses me as well. It seems as if he is making a case for Ray catching a case of bitterness from these bitter women, when what he needs to be catching is some real contrition. Instead, there is the neatness of him finally seeing himself as he is, as old as these women and a hag, now too – old and discarded. It seems a shallow epiphany. But then, that’s Ray – shallow. But I join you in not really getting where Theroux is going with the “aspect of us”.

    As an aside, seen this way – Shelby as the devil – the story reminds me of Hawthorne, and I enjoyed the staginess of this old fashioned morality tale, as if realism could not do the gravity of Ray’s lack of an inner life justice.

    Is the link of Shelby to the devil justified? I think so. A Shelby Cobra would be exactly the kind of car Ray would love. In addition, it makes the story talk to exactly the kind of man that Theroux is aiming at – there would be an unpleasant shock of recognition, I think. The fact that Theroux gives Ray Testa and Angie such careful allegorical names makes me think he’s carefully done the same with Shelby.

  5. Roger says:

    Wow, I can’t remember reading a story that struck me as having such considerable strengths and weaknesses. The one-liners are great, as Betsy points out, and the comical tone that pervades almost the entire story – from its conventional-seeming beginning to its unconventional rest – pulled me forward as I read it. Betsy, I think you’re exactly right in identifying Shelby as a malevolent supernatural being. She either is the devil’s daughter or may as well be. And I thought that was a clever touch by Theroux, seeming to focus on Angie’s curse at the beginning while including, in an understated way, the sinister attributes of Shelby from the start. Her “catlike” eyes, “feline good health,” her “almost severe” mouth, and her consistently “low, certain voice” are all there in the story’s second column, waiting to manifest themselves later. Shelby’s father also gave us some clues right from the start: e.g., “She’s an old soul.” Maybe Angie delivered a curse, but if so Shelby was the agent through which the curse gained its power.

    Still, I found the story to be way over the top: the visitations by Ray’s immense collection of hags-from-the past with their missing teeth and sockless feet crossed the line from funny to ridiculous pretty quickly. Even within the context of a work of magical realism/fantasy, the persistent stalking by these largely identical “furies” was too much to believe.

    Worse, Ray Testa comes off as perhaps more of a caricature than the “hags.” He didn’t merely hurt the feelings of most of these women by deserting them; rather, he was a serial sexual assaulter. I’m not saying it’s impossible for a sexual predator to be interesting enough to make for a fine protagonist, but there has to be something more to him than that. Ray lacked that something more. Instead, he starts out as a cheesy sleaze boasting about being older than his father-in-law and diminishes as the story proceeds.

    And while Shelby as the devil’s daughter was a wonderful idea, Shelby as a concrete character didn’t offer much. Her insistence on seeing a marriage counselor seemed unnatural because she was (purportedly) upset by what she has learned about Ray’s character, not about anything going on between the two of them. And her statements that the hags “look like” Ray, that they “are” Ray, and that “each person in our past in an aspect of us” sound like fortune cookie wisdom at best, nonsense at worst.

    The story’s progression and its ending seemed way heavy-handed, a moral lesson on steroids. The physical descriptions of the women from Ray’s past and those wonderful lines (“Her chair emitted complaining squeaks when she shifted in it”) almost made the story work despite all this. But not quite, not for me anyway.

  6. Betsy says:

    Roger – so nice to hear from you and read the detailed discussion about Shelby, especially your points regarding the oddness, within the context, of her insisting on therapy. I agree with your comments about the unevenness of the presentation – is it funny, is it sad? is he a good old boy, is he pathological?

    I thought your point about the “largely identical furies” was also well taken, and the same with the hags looking like Ray.

    But I have to say I was glad they printed it, even if it turned out to be a super-powered idea that Theroux found a little hard to manage.

  7. Ken says:

    I thought this was awful. Completely didactic and unrealistic. All on one tired note. Theroux is usually such a good writer

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