The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home
by Pico Iyer
Published by Knopf
303 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
"The unhappiest people I know these days," writes transcendental travel writer Pico Iyer in The Global Soul, "are often the ones in motion, encouraged to search for a utopia outside themselves." This restless, rootless and often fruitless search for a sense of home in a fragmented and dizzyingly fast-paced world has led to a peculiar form of alienation which Iyer knows only too well. Though he tracks this phenomenon of the 21st century with great accuracy and even brilliance, he is unable to offer a solution for the aching malaise afflicting these global souls, whom he describes as "full-time citizens of nowhere."
Iyer's international background qualifies him as one of the "Nowherians" he so aptly describes. The son of East Indian parents, born and schooled in 1960s England, he felt he belonged fully to neither culture. British matrons would exclaim, "But you speak such good English!" refusing to believe it was his native tongue. He lived for years in California until a disastrous house fire literally wiped out all his earthly possessions, adding to his sense of rootlessness. Globetrotting incessantly in his journalistic pursuits, he finally settled into a fragile sort of domesticity in, of all places, rural Japan.
In his lifetime he has witnessed a blurring or even dissolving of national and cultural boundaries, a new kind of global unity which paradoxically runs parallel to an increasing sense of fragmentation within the individual. If we're not sure where we are from, Iyer wonders, can we know who we are or where we are going?
It is as if the center of gravity has shifted for a great many people in a sort of seismic social upheaval, leaving a great gaping fault-line through human identity. Can we be subjected to this many changes this quickly, and be expected to adapt without strain? "Humanity today is facing all kinds of sudden jerks it's never known before, and many of us embrace this phenomenon -- the definition of possibility -- without knowing what the consequences will be.... Never before in human history, I suspect, have so many been surrounded by so much that they can't follow."
Iyer loves to find microcosms within the culture, from which he draws conclusions for the entire world in a manner which is both bold and a little foolhardy. The modern airport stands as a prime example, with its forced multiculturalism (the airport is "based on the assumption that everyone is from somewhere else") and shallow, Westernized uniformity (McDonald's, The Body Shop, Holiday Inn and Muzak). It is "the product, in its video arcades, its hotels, and its cocktail lounges, of a mixed marriage between a border crossing and a shopping mall."
Hong Kong is another global microcosm, a city both traditional and ultramodern in which Iyer feels the ache of alienation even more keenly: "Everywhere, I felt a crush of multicultural props offering one goodies that answered every need except for the ancient, ancestral ones that convenience and speed could not wish away." When those ancestral needs go unmet, there is a steep price to pay in personal terms: "Forming a sense of commitment can be hard without a sense of community." Thus life can go by in a sort of hyperstimulated blur, with feet barely touching the ground long enough to make any sort of meaningful contact.
Not that Iyer believes that multiculturalism is a bad idea. His visit to Toronto yields some interesting if rather naive observations about Canadian culture, which he idealizes in the manner of an outsider eager to find a utopia (i.e. Canada's multiculturalism "offered the prospect of uniting all the fragments in a stained-glass whole"). Nevertheless, he is right on the money when he concludes that Toronto's cultural mosaic is more of a palimpsest, with the new layered atop the unchanging old: " Slice Toronto along one north-south artery, and you'd find a seething, spicy, uncategorizable something best described by the Little China Restaurant, which advertised 'Indian Pakistani-style Chinese food;' slice it a little farther along, and you'd find pure white Highland shortbread."
His observations on the Atlanta Olympics and the cultural crazy-quilt of modern Britain (in which he notices that the national dish is now curry) seem to go on too long, as if to prove a point he has already made. Iyer's style can be wordy, even bulky, with long winding sentences full of brackets and semicolons. Its verbose ramblings, image piled atop image, can induce the same sort of intellectual vertigo he criticizes in the "postmodern" world. And like far too many contemporary writers, he is afflicted with "post-itus" (some examples: postglobal, posturban, postinspirational, even posthuman).
But along with monstrosities like "flexecutives" and "promotainment," he can sometimes serve up a really memorable phrase like "the city as anthology," or, "Everywhere is so made up of everywhere else." These flashes of brilliance are real poetry and reveal a depth which Iyer might be able to plumb more effectively, if he were only able to stay in one place for long enough.
The last chapter of The Global Soul ("The Alien Home", an essay on his strange attraction to Japanese culture) reveals more about its author than he probably intended. This gleaner of social trends, this diviner of cutting-edge 21st century phenomena does not use a computer. Until recently when he reluctantly attained an electric typewriter, he wrote all his articles and essays by hand. (In fact he confesses he wrote The Global Soul sitting at a child's desk, using a "Hello Kitty" pencil.) For 12 years he has lived with a Japanese woman; neither is comfortable in the other's language, so that they can communicate "only in a kind of fluent pidgin."
In some ways Iyer appears to be from another century (the 19th, to be exact), so that he seems an odd choice to peer into the global future. But writers are always observers, and therefore somewhat set apart. Ironically, this book on alienation can be alienating to read. Perhaps if Iyer could stop trying so hard to find himself, if he were more at home in his own skin, his potential for real depth of insight would have a chance to blossom. The Global Soul is a noble experiment, often intriguing, sometimes entertaining and insightful, but one which never comes to a satisfactory conclusion. | June 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.