"Upside-Down Cake"
by Paul Theroux
Originally published in the June 27, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

June 27, 2016I’ve been a fan of Theroux for years, and I’m glad to see him with another piece in The New Yorker. I hope it’s good and can wash away some of my disappointment with the magazine’s output. Perhaps it’s unfair to hope that much, but Theroux has delivered before.

I’ll have thoughts below soon, but in the meantime feel free to share your thoughts on the story, Theroux, or whatever comes to mind as we discuss this offering.

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By |2016-06-20T00:53:05-04:00June 20th, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Paul Theroux|Tags: |12 Comments


  1. David June 20, 2016 at 11:39 am

    When I read a short story I usually like the ones I can explain to other people by identifying the BIG IDEA that the story is about. As I mentioned in a comment on “Fable”, I just finished reading Charles Yu’s excellent collection “Sorry Please Thank You”. The first story in the book is “Standard Loneliness Package”, a science fiction story about a world where rich westerners can “outsource” unpleasant emotional experiences to call centers in India. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” is comically about what it would be like if your real life were that of a video game character. The ideas for me are a great hook.

    Recently I have read almost all of Ottessa Moshfegh’s published work having discovered her in January through “The Beach Boy” in the New Yorker. She does not write BIG IDEA fiction but rather writes stories to present interesting characters. The events are only there to inform us (and often themselves) of who these people are. It is no coincidence that the titles of both of her novels (“McGlue” and “Eileen”) are the names of the main character.

    Two-thirds of the way through “Upside-Down Cake” I was becoming resigned to the fact that this story was neither. If someone asked me what the story was about I would have said “An uncomfortable family gathering” and if further asked what is it about beyond that I would have said “I don’t know”. Nothing happens that is particularly interesting on its own and none of the characters particularly unique or memorable. Obviously Theroux is a good writer, but it did not seem that the story had a reason to exist.

    Then we get to the surprise. I was already on board with the idea that the family members were unlikable for how they treated these unknown strangers, so when the narrator confronts them about it I felt I was on his side. But then I started thinking about what he had done that day to set them up. He basically used his own son’s introduction to the family as a way of taking a shot at them. That he is no better than the rest of them is no real surprise, since he is as much a product of his family as the rest are.

    But as interesting the revelation of his guests’ identity was, I am not sure it was enough of a payoff. It did not really tell us much about the family we did not already know. The characters do not seem to change in any important ways when discovering their relationship to the guests. It just seem that life will go on for all of them – including the narrator who, rather than seeming to be trying to break free from the family mind games, has just been playing them better than the rest.

    So for me it was a long, slow burn to a very minimal ending. There was nothing really new or unique about these people and not much happens. Maybe if the narrator was using this party as a way of announcing he was cutting ties with his family and going to spend more time with his son and his family there would have been more of a point to it all. Then the party would not have quite been the funeral he likened it too at the beginning, but it would have been another kind of farewell. As the ending stands, I mostly wonder about the new-found son and his family and hope they don’t get too sucked into the dysfunction of this larger family. They seem like nice people. They deserve better.

  2. Trevor June 20, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    I just kind of scanned your comment, David, since I haven’t yet read the story, but I wanted to say thanks for your great comment! I’ll have more to respond with soon!

  3. Trevor Berrett June 22, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    I’ve gotten through the story and find that I echo David’s articulate and thorough comment above. I like Theroux, so this was a bit of a disappointment. Well written, so there were no problems there, but “minimal ending” is just how I’d describe it.

  4. William June 23, 2016 at 12:04 am

    David —

    I agree with you about this story. I agree that the narrator, Jay, seemed as though he was setting his family up. Not that they needed much setting up — they were pretty unlikeable from the outset. But it led to an ending in which the narrator says “Nyah nyah on you.” Really unacceptable, considering the writer’s absolute power over its characters. If anything the protagonist should be the one who gets a comeuppance.

    This fits with an incident about Theroux and his trashing of his former mentor, V.S. Naipiul.


    It appears that Theroux may be in real life also a person who likes having the last word and feeling superior.

    BTW, your idea that a story should either present a big idea or an interesting character is a bit different from my criteria — someone should change or someone should engage our caring. But I can accept both of your landmarks. Perhaps I should enlarge my view.

    Thanks for your recommendation of Ottessa Moshfegh. I shall try her writing.

  5. Ken June 25, 2016 at 5:19 am

    I can’t believe this was published. Theroux is usually reliable, but this was dreadful. The points above about it being pointless are all correct, plus—it seems really a bad idea to introduce about 8 characters at once who you don’t really do much to distinguish. Once the page was turned, I cared so little I didn’t even bother going back to try and recall who was married to who as the story was so dull and mean and as the characters, with the exception of the irritating Floyd, all seemed to be the same.

  6. joe June 25, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    This was perhaps the single worst story i have ever read in TNY. How the author himself did not save himself the embarrassment of such a public display that his writing skills have left the building, I cannot comprehend. This was indistinguishable from the work of not just a rank amateur, but someone who was dared the night before to attempt his first fiction. Utterly abominable, incoherent, boring, and painful.

  7. Rosalind June 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    I could identify with the situation in this story. My recent birthday party had a healthy serving of “mixed nuts”. Some may find this too salty. I didn’t.

  8. Greg June 28, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Ken and Joe – Your comments are perfect!

    Thank you for this post-mortem.

  9. Esther Smoller July 5, 2016 at 10:58 am

    I agreeIt was the worst. Why was it published?

  10. Greg July 7, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    Good question Esther!

    Over the past few years the contributors on this site have concluded that there are ‘politics at play’ in choosing the NYR fiction pieces.

    A shame really…..shouldn’t art be above that?

  11. lucindamoore July 13, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    I liked the story, though I understand not liking it…since I have been a member of a very large and chaotic family, I understand and appreciate certain sentiments that he was able to portray. And it being a sequel to a previous and very good personal essay called, “the best year of my life, ” published about 10 years ago (I think), it makes complete sense. Those of you that cannot relate to family members being so unlikeable, consider yourselves lucky.

  12. Greg July 13, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks Lucinda for giving us your personal perspective!

    I now feel extra fortunate for my positive (mostly) family dynamics….I feel for you that Tolstoy’s famous quote about unhappy families applies to you….

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