This book about Naipaul is the best introduction to nearly all of Naipaul’s work which has been published in book form. It is a judicious, comprehensive and skilful work that illuminates this [End Page 212] controversial writer while focussing on what makes Naipaul important- his writing not his political views or inclinations.
This is a short work of twelve chapters. Starting with an introductory chapter that briefly discusses Naipaul’s life and his views on writing it is then organized chronologically. Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira are examined as “apprentice pieces”: Dooley discusses each work in turn and then provides some valuable comments on Naipaul’s development as a writer. The next chapter is devoted to A House for Mr Biswas, and two other works are discussed in single chapters. Usually Dooley’s analysis proceeds by grouping two or three works (fiction and non-fiction are treated separately) in a chapter, with the final chapter of analysis devoted to Naipaul’s last three novels, A Way in the World, Half a Life and Magic Seeds. In her conclusion she draws together the strands of her argument and analysis.
The chronological method is suited for following Naipaul’s development as a writer—his search for new material and new forms to express himself and what he sees as a too often simplified version of reality. Dooley elucidates Naipaul’s anti-ideological and highly critical attitudes to what he sees as this persistent simplifying and shows how it works in his fiction and appears more overtly in his non-fiction. She does not avoid the various criticisms of Naipaul but tends, quite rightly, to show how often these are based on the work being examined not closely enough or the confusion between fiction and non-fiction. In discussing Guerrillas she also mentions his long piece “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad” using the same material but discusses it in the following chapter. This is one case where the non-fiction is much better than the fiction and Dooley seems to miss a trick here by not examining them together and explaining why this should be so. Part of the reason is, she has already pointed out, that Naipaul was not a dramatic writer and tries to be so here. She is, however, quite prepared to point out Naipaul’s inconsistencies and absurdities. Two examples will suffice. On pages 31 and 32 she shows with subtlety how Naipaul’s desire to demonstrate that he, or rather A House for Mr Biswas, has no universal significance is merely wrong and slightly perverse. Later in the book she comments on Reading and Writing: A Personal Account: “One has the impression with these pieces that Naipaul’s fascination with his own career is beginning to border on obsession” (p. 120). Anyone who reads A Writer’s People, published after her own book was, can only be struck by the aptness of this comment.
The three works chosen for special treatment are A House For Mr Biswas, In a Free State and The Enigma of Arrival. In any discussion of Naipaul’s work Mr Biswas would merit special treatment. It is the one thing about Naipaul that finds almost universal agreement. Dooley [End Page 213] skillfully analyses the novel and brings out its qualities. Her treatment may not add anything new but this is in any case difficult to achieve with this particular novel. The second and third choices, however, may raise a few eyebrows. The clue lies in the chapter title—“Finding the Correct Form: In a Free State.” Dooley lays out clearly the evidence that Naipaul was determined to find the right, or at least a better, form for his long fiction for some time, believing that the nineteenth century form of the novel was not suited to his intention. It is slightly surprising, and Dooley is perhaps too polite to point this out, that Naipaul who had studied English Literature at Oxford University presented this as...