In Isolation, a Sense of Place
IN her latest book, poet Deborah Tall recalls the 10-year process through which she renounced a rootless suburban childhood by hunkering down in the aesthetically and historically rich Finger Lakes area of upstate New York. Before she arrived, Tall envisioned upstate in calendar-art terms: small towns, traditional farming, unspoiled vistas. What she found was a landscape whose beguiling scenery belies recalcitrant rural poverty, a sullen economy, and history largely forgotten by the locals.
An academic position at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., at the head of Seneca Lake, brought her and her family from New York City to this modest semirural region. For Tall and her husband, the move was freighted with mental baggage. It signaled a farewell to a peripatetic existence that short-term jobs and the absence of children affords American academics. Tall feared that settling down might be settling for too little.
To ease her wariness, Tall closely attended to the distinctive geography, history, and contemporary politics of Geneva and the Seneca Lake area. "From Where We Stand" is her journal of those discoveries, intermingled with meditation on the moral intricacies of growing up late.
Short sections on native Americans, military expeditions, white settlement, industry, local issues, and art are interwoven with incidents in Tall's personal and professional life. The result is an unusual experiment in autobiography, wherein self is elucidated through the experience of place.
Since Tall so caringly coaxes a history of habitation into legibility, readers will be ambushed by the book's conclusion. Geneva's tattered civic life and poor economy eventually overwhelm her. Her memoir ends with a terse sermon on what she believes to be the area's flaws, followed by the news that Tall and her family have moved to Ithaca, the cosmopolitan academic city at the foot of Cayuga Lake. Such a swift reversal of sentiment serves to undermine the authenticity of Tall's decade-long project.
Unlike Deborah Tall, Pico Iyer does not seek to belong to a particular place, nor to find himself in relation to it. "Falling Off the Map," a collection of his travel essays, gets its piquancy from his being an outsider. The premise for the compilation is that life in countries that are psychologically, geographically, or politically secluded can be bizarrely strained. For different reasons, Iyer argues, Paraguay, Iceland, Bhutan, and Cuba stand outside the global mainstream.
Sometimes loneliness is deemed an advantage, as Iyer suggests has happened in Australia. But as an international outcast, North Korea is bloated with self-congratulatory hyperbole. In the capital, Pyongyang, one can tour the "Happiness-Filled Pleasure Park,"then visit the Grand People's Study House, stopping to browse through a bestseller titled "An Earthly Paradise for the People."
Time has diluted Iyer's concept somewhat. The political and monetary chaos in Argentina has stabilized since he visited in 1990. Since 1991, Vietnam has increasingly entered the world community. But Bhutan remains deliberately remote, and Iceland's perpetually spartan terrain still encourages restlessness.
Ultimately, it does not matter that the Cuba Iyer has visited for the last five years may be just months from imploding. As he showed in his well regarded account "Video Night in Kathmandu," Iyer's singular outlook and powers of observation do not grow stale because circumstances have changed.
Whereas much travel writing is thick description, intoning the charms of the past, Iyer is a postmodern tourist, drawn to the textures of the present. He is alive to video culture and what he terms the emergent global "single polyglot multiculture." His whimsy makes him a more effective social critic than any ideologue.
Side by side, these books address the perennial conundrum of travel literature. If fully experiencing one place helps us to understand ourselves and other places, is it equally true that the wandering travel writer gains critical distance through the act of travel?