"Eat, Pray, Love" A PeaceBang Review
I was taken down a nasty stealth flu bug on Sunday afternoon -- one of those bugs that comes on like the character Cato in the Pink Panther movies, where you walk through the door with your bag and coat and it jumps out from behind the couch going HI-YAH!
So I finished Elizabeth Gilbert's much-celebrated travelogue memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: One Women's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia in bed this afternoon, and I must say I have very mixed feelings about it.
The book is divided into three main sections named for the countries Gilbert fled to in search of healing and spiritual growth following a harrowing divorce. Her 108 chapters are a secondary organizational device chosen in honor of the 108 beads of the japa mala, or the beads used in prayer by devout Hindus and Buddhists, and which were adapted by Europeans as the rosary.
I loved the first two chapters of this book. Gilbert is an honest, warm and engaging narrator, and although she initially seemed to me to be over-dramatic and self-indulgent about her man woes, she dresses up her very common pains and fears in beautiful prose and appealing earnestness. I could easily forgive the excessive processing and wailing; haven't we all been there?
Gilbert decided to take a year off and to travel. She clearly understands the privilege that allows her to do this and goes to great pains to say how lucky she is, which kept this reader, at least, from bitter envy.
First, Gilbert goes to Italy for four months to experience the pure joy of learning Italian (a language she loves but has no practical use for), to eat a lot of pasta and fill out her heartbroken-starved body, and to soak up sun and la dolce via. I enjoyed reading about her enjoying herself.
Then, Liz goes to India to enter into four months of extremely rigorous spiritual practice at an ashram of a spiritual teacher she refers to only as her Guru. In this chapter, she takes on the very difficult task of sharing the path to enlightenment -- and actually tries to describe a bona fide mystical experience of pure transcendence. It was approximately at this point in the book that I decided that I didn't genuinely like Liz Gilbert as a person, but that I appreciated both her desire to write about her spiritual work and her talent in communicating the inner struggle of the yogic path. While remaining emotionally distanced from her as a narrator, I could still cheer her on and say, Right on, kid, when she wrote of her highs and lows in meditation and in the difficulty of peeling away the ego. Without being fond of her, I was eminently interested in her and her terrific writing.
The big problem that began to emerge for me in this chapter is that Gilbert relies heavily on the use of dialogue spoken by other people, and that dialogue read to me as increasingly inauthentic as the book wore on. This is a memoir, and therefore, we are asked to believe that all the dialogue is a fair report of actual conversations between actual people. In the character of Richard From Texas at the ashram, though, I lost the sense of "actual people" and began to feel that the conversations reported were really more Liz Gilbert's literary take on conversations rather than the words of real people. Does anyone really go around speaking totally in folksy aphorisms? Do golden nuggets of wisdom really fall out every time anyone opens his or her mouth? This, Liz Gilbert would have me believe, and I don't buy it.
It also occurred to me in this chapter that Liz Gilbert had an awfully easy time being befriended by intensely attentive men on every leg of her journey and yet for all her self-awareness, never seems to intuit that her being a great-looking, young American blonde has anything to do with that. I read a lot of travelogues and can't help but notice that global harmony is apparently a lot easier to personally experience when you're not a short, chunky Jewish professor with frizzy hair, or a middle-aged British man with a beer gut and a walking stick, or a Puerto Rican lesbian with a bad leg.
Gilbert seems not to be able to get through one day of her spiritual search without the promise of male attention at some point during, or at the conclusion of it. I couldn't help it -- I soon began to smirkingly think of this book as "How I Re-Affirmed My Addiction To Male Attention Across Two Continents And Three Countries!"
By the time she gets to Bali, Indonesia, Gilbert is personally happy and serene, but -- bad news for her readers!! -- her prose has degenerated into something precious and treacly. She finds a perfect house and moves in! She becomes reacquainted with the darling medicine man who read her palm two years ago and prophecied that she would come back and tutor him in English! She wins the heart of the medicine man's ornery wife! She ... gets a hot Brazilian boyfriend!!
What a surprise! Here's a woman who started out her year of travel with the intense desire to free herself from love-addiction (her own characterization of her overwrought style of being in relationships), and who winds up back in love just in time for the end of the story. This is where the writing gets really bad*, and where Gilbert's fine sense of perspective and context gets sloppy and clueless.
It's one thing to share with a western audience the genuinely interesting and rare journey to conquering inner demons and being able to comply with ancient yogic disciplines. It is another thing entirely to write about sex after a time of celibacy with the same sense of gee-whiz-folks uniqueness. Any reader who has had a rapturous sexual experience can only read Chapter 99 with a sense of embarrassed humility, yes, Liz, we know. We remember. It's great. We get it. Yes, sex can be a transcendent experience. We're glad you and Felipe are so very, very special. Can we please stop hearing about how exquisitely beautiful you are now?
I can't imagine how these chapters read to someone who hasn't ever had a rapturous sexual experience. I suspect one would need either a barf bag or a bullet to bite. Or perhaps a tomato to throw.
Reading the final pages of this saga, I had to laugh at the lack of self-awareness from this woman who has just spent 250+ pages proving to us how self-aware she is. When her Brazilian lover Felipe describes seeing Liz from the back at a party and thinking to himself, "That's it. That's my woman. I must have that woman," it doesn't occur to Gilbert to add, "Yes, what a surprise. The only tall American blonde at the party, and one of the few white women on the entire island of Bali. It's amazing, is it not, that this man from the most macho of nations would be immediately drawn to a woman who looks just like the ideal of femininity peddled across the globe by the unbiquitous forces of American capitalism and cultural hegemony."
I'm sorry to keep harping on this point, but I think it's the great blind spot of the memoir. Any writer who wants to write about cultural differences then fails to locate herself culturally should be prepared to be taken to task for it.
But there's an even worse, and more clueless blooper in this chapter, which is also, to my ears, rife with inauthentic and overly-precious dialogue that makes the Balinese natives sound like characters from the "It's a Small World After All" ride.** In this chapter, Liz Gilbert sets herself up as a saint, the Great White Savior of a poor Balinese women she befriends, and then has the nerve to viciously dish that friend when she fails to accept Gilbert's great, magnanimous gift in a manner appropriate to American cultural values.
There is something extraordinarily ugly in the way that Gilbert uses the story as a way to cement her own position as a Spiritually Advanced Person at the expense of her friend, the far more delightful, real and likeable medicine woman Wayan. Gilbert frets and fumes and fusses prettily, and shows us how she and her boyfriend Felipe totally have the goods on these backasswards Balinese (but all the while making soft liberal protestations that that's not really what she's doing at all), but never for one minute takes her harsh journalistic lens off the characters (ostensibly friends!) she's exploiting for the purpose of writing an interesting book.
Yes, Gilbert raises $18,000 for her friend and provides a home for Wayan and her three children. That's wonderful. And yet, how much more wonderful if Gilbert hadn't used the complexities and the misunderstandings of the transaction as further evidence of how enlightened and mature she has become, all at the expense of a real person who is fully capable of reading-- or hearing about-- her book.
Gilbert has been compared to Anne Lamott, and I'm afraid it's true. As Lamott never hesitates to exploit her own son by airing his personal business all over her books and articles -- she's the favorite literary Mother Vampire writing in America today -- Gilbert similarly sucks the life blood out of all the lovely people in her path in order to serve them up as side dishes for our consumption, always with herself as the clever, delicious main course.
And after the first two chapters, I could no longer swallow it.
* from page 288,
"What I mostly remember about that night is the billowy white mosquito netting that surrounded us. How it looked to me like a parachute. And how I felt like I was now deploying this parachute to escort me out the side exit of the solid, disciplined airplane which had been flying me during these few years out of A Very Hard Time in My Life. But now my sturdy flying machine had become obsolete right there in midair, so I stepped out of that single-minded single-engine airplane and let this fluttering white parachute swing me down through the strange empty atmosphere between my past and my future, and land me safely on this small, bed-shaped island, inhabited only by this handsome shipwrecked Brazilian sailor..."
** According to reviews on Amazon.com, it appears that Gilbert's rendering of various dialects in the book-on-tape version of Eat, Pray, Love is extremely offensive. I am not surprised.