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RIP the travel book

Posted by Christopher Shea  December 15, 2008 11:47 AM

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"Ghost Train to the Eastern Star"

Is travel writing dead? Ian Jack, a former editor of Granta suggests as much in a review [subscribers only] of Paul Theroux's new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star," in which Theroux retraces the route he took 33 years earlier in "The Great Railway Bazaar" (roughly: London to Japan). The earlier book has been credited with inspiring a revival of travel literature.

The argument is inspired not by any weakness in Theroux's book, though Jack finds it slackly written at points, but by Theroux's passing thoughts on how easy he finds it to interrogate the most disadvantaged citizens on the Indian subcontinent. "No one," Theroux wrote, "could travel among the American poor the way I could travel among the Indian poor, asking intrusive questions. What's your name? … How much money do you make?"

For Theroux, the implication is that there remains an excellent, though depressing, travel book to be written by a foreigner about America. ("I have never seen any community in India so hopeless or, in its way, so hermetic in its poverty, so blatant in its look of menace, so sad and unwelcoming, as East St. Louis, Illinois …") But Jack, in the New York Review of Books, argues that no such book could be written: No foreign interloper, cruising through United States by train (or, more likely, car), could obtain enough information to say anything useful about America's toughest communities, or for that matter even keep herself safe. A book about American poverty would have to come from someone who was a part of those neighborhoods by birth or committed choice. The story would have to come from inside.

And there lies the realization that, if applied universally, undermines the premise of literary jaunts like Theroux's through impoverished "other" worlds. How deep is his penetration, really, or that of other European and American travel writers? "[T]he bell is tolling," Jack writes, "for the long tradition of a literary form founded on the unspoken idea that stability and normality are to be found where you started from, that everywhere else is a little crazy." To take it a step further, we now know that "we" can learn as much about "them" from a 10-minute conversation (however wittily and artfully the conversation is recounted later, between hard covers) as they can learn about us. That is to say, not much.

PS Policemen of the boundary between fact and fiction will be interested in Theroux's admission, in "Ghost Train," that he liberally moved events around in "Railway Bazaar," for dramatic effect. He met one Burmese hotel owner at -- no surprise -- his hotel. But to improve the book, he fashioned an encounter with the man on a train. That practice used to be routine, including at the supposedly rigorous New Yorker -- Janet Malcolm, defending herself (successfully) against a libel charge that stemmed from a 1983 profile, admitted to relocating and blending numerous conversations with a source into a single "scene" -- but now draws criticism, including, ambivalently, from Jack. He calls Theroux's admission "a small thing -- though less so when you turn to ['The Great Railway Bazaar'] and see what the deceit has required. Travel writing of a certain kind -- perhaps the novelist's kind -- seems to demand it."

"The Great Railway Bazaar"
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