Sunday, 24 October 2010
In the beginning of this book the strange - protean, chameleonic - cultural outcast who is writing it attempts to find something to redeem the situation that faces the mixed-race citizen, the purposefully displaced economic refugee, the expatriate consultant with hundreds of thousands of air-miles to his credit, the child of the diaspora (such as himself) whether raised in comfort or in penury. But wherever he looks and whatever he writes, the exercise always makes him look further, as though the lack of an immediately obvious explanation for the kind of life he's examining just spurs him to find a more satisfying analogue among the other non-standard options available at the margins of the comfortable, settled existence that is the province of the mainstream.
He seeks out the alternate mainstream of the marginal individual (the Global Soul) and, like a child sorting through stamps in preparation for the major task of inserting them into an album - those that belong in the same series are put together, the triangular ones go together, the ones showing artworks are placed together - he carefully examines the narrative and subject-matter options he has taken in during his travels throughout the world. At the end of the day, the child will have to close the album and place it on a shelf out of harm's way. Iyer's problem is that, having assembled so many stories of transient, displaced, non-standard lifestyles in a single location he doesn't seem to know what to do with them.
Of course, he's aware of the problem. "Philosophy is really homesickness: the wish to be everywhere at home," writes Friedrich Nietzsche in the quote plucked out of Iyer's (no doubt) extensive library for use at the head of the first chapter. It's as though, reading the book, you were faced with the work of an over-stimulated bower-bird: everything must have a place in the cosmic plan that is the book to be written. Nothing can be left out. Something will be omitted, of course, but the dazzling array of examples Iyer conjures up from his memory (there must have been a plan for this book long before he started writing it, you think) manifests itself in a surfeit of stories. And the emotionally positive ones that appear in the first chapter, tellingly, do not last.
This is because Iyer is a thoughtful person. The tone soon becomes scratchy and critical as when Iyer writes about Los Angeles Airport (LAX) or in the best parts of the book: those that deal with the Atlanta Olympics of 1996.
The writing is good but not outstanding, and the long sentences frequently collapse, exhausted, into commonplaces that would not appear out-of-place in any journalistic feature story. There's a good reason for the occasional mediocrities and the flat lines. It's because that's what Iyer is: a journalist. The imagery and structure sometimes allows novel ideas to poke through the array of his ideas, such as when he considers that new forms of extreme nationalism have appeared in response to the homogenisation of cultural and economic experience in an increasingly globalised world. But these good bits are not followed up. What usually follows is another "case" (he's ever the journalist) as the author trots about the globe racking up air-miles while on the payroll of a major American news organisation.
The eye sees and, being Iyer, the eye is assisted by being placed in locations and at times that will provide views of things that are not normally subject to scrutiny. The eye sees the way Coca-Cola, for example, places itself in close proximity to the International Olympic Committee. The eye is taken on a drive through the gaudy, or run-down, or crassly-consumeristic streets of Atlanta and the hand dutifully writes what has been observed. It's not hard. It takes time (and therefore money) and a modicum of stylistic competence. Iyer is a writer. That's what he does. You can feel that he enjoys it. And he's pretty good at it, too.
But to reach beyond the surfaces that Iyer intently concentrates his gaze on you would need more information about politics, or economics, or you would need some stories told in detail (not just by a fellow walking around an airport terminal at all hours of the day and night) of how people got themselves in the situation they find themselves in. You need investigative skills that Iyer, I believe, does not excel at. You would need a book about Philippina maids working in Hong Kong (one of the topics he touches on briefly), or one about how global corporations do business (he writes about a friend who travels a lot on business).
The book ends with a meditation on quotidian life: Iyer's own life in a small town near Nara, the ancient capital the Americans agreed not to bomb to smithereens when they were busy destroying three other Japanese cities while ending WWII. By cataloguing his daily life and the points of contact between himself and his adopted society, Iyer manages, in his own, pacific and resolution-seeking way, to put away the album he started making with the description of the events of the day his house in California burnt down 200 pages earlier. Ultimately, Iyer is writing about himself, trying to find a sense of community among people whose situations resemble his, or who are, like him, removed from a solid community of belonging. He does this, finally, by recounting a dream he had one night in Japan.
He has a sense of being at home in the dream. But as a writer, he is probably going to be doomed to living on the outside of regular places, such as suburbs that are filled with people going about their business behind closed doors, or cities with the same people busy engaging with one another on the street. Ultimately, he seeks out himself, and fashions stories out of his experiences. It's the place where he feels most comfortable. There are fewer modalities for conflict there. On a critical plane, Iyer the writer shows himself to be a dedicated observer and an adept chronicler of a world too busy to stop moving.