Friday, May 11, 2012

Pico Iyer's "The Global Soul": Book Review

I liked Pico Iyer's debut collection of essays "Video Nights in Kathmandu" and his recent "The Open Road" on the Dalai Lama (the latter reviewed 10/08). A friend of mine leaving the U.S. to live in Ireland over a decade ago recommended this exploration of globalism from Iyer's perspective. I found it predictable, better read perhaps in its original version as magazine form rather than as seven essays.

The reason is, as a passing phrase such as Iyer claiming to be "middle-class" despite coming from an academic family in tony Santa Barbara who sent him to boarding school and then Cambridge, or his "whenever I attend an Olympics" about his reporting on many of these events, betrays his privilege. That alone cannot justify a critique of what he conveys in his journalism, but it does repeat a note of what he finds in Toronto as "rootless cosmopolitanism" and this note sounds on nearly every page, until it dulls the senses. 

He works hard to evoke his settings: the house on fire and amid flood atop a Santa Barbara hilltop; the hideous LAX where an Ethiopian arrives to find herself surrounded by her former enemies, the Tigreans, in a city where nothing matches the movies seen abroad of the palm tree celebrity paradise; his friend in Hong Kong who roams the world as, of course, a management consultant; Toronto's similar megapolis of new arrivals and "visible minorities" in a "postmodern Commonwealth"; Atlanta's Coca-Cola sponsored Olympics amidst a sprawl that's the "urban equivalent to bottled water"; London as seen through his semi-deracinated perspective; and finally a graceful depiction of his home in the Japanese locale of Nara.

Not to say moments emerge of insight or wit. "One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory." So he sums up Toronto (159), although naturally this could be anywhere he visits. I wish he'd tightened, as Toronto compared and contrasted with Los Angeles begs for an extended treatment, the connections between essays. The one on Toronto and the one on Atlanta drag on endlessly, when a revised version of these articles might have looked at all three, cut many of the vignettes and conversations, and focused on the best examples from the dozens that stuff each chapter.

That way, his identification as "full-time citizen of nowhere" might have sharpened, as the closing chapter shows best, when a customs officer as he comes back to Japan grills him: "What prompted me to bring antihistamines into a peace-loving island?" (277) Lighter, more streamlined, moments such as these in more abundance might have lightened the load of an ambitious but ultimately predictable array of observations on the global soul. (5-3-12 to Amazon US)

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