Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reading America

This appeared in today's DNA.

DRIVING HOME Jonathan Raban

Though Jonathan Raban had been writing literary criticism and travelogues since the late Sixties, it was with Hunting Mister Heartbreak in 1991 that he really came into his own. This was his personal discovery of America, coinciding with his move from London to Seattle in 1990 at the not-so-young age of 47. As he writes, he moved for “casual and disreputable reasons”: “I met someone…the usual story”.

It was a move that had the felicitous side-effect of making him find subjects that re-animated his writing, mainly the lives and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Since then, he’s produced many more impressive works, notably the travelogues Bad Land and Passage to Juneau; and the novels Waxwings and Surveillance.

His Driving Home is a scrapbook of an Englishman in America, a collection of journalism from 1993 to 2009 that earlier appeared in Granta, Vogue,The New Republic, The Independent, among many other British and American publications. It’s arranged in strict chronological order, which immediately poses a problem to the reader going through it from front to back – book assessments follow travel pieces that follow author profiles that follow meditations on the state of America. (More than once, this reviewer was tempted by the heretical notion of ripping out all the pages from the volume and re-arranging them thematically.) It’s a ragbag then, albeit one loosely held together by the theme of displacement.

In his marvelous introduction Raban talks of the time he first learned to read as a child, and years later, reading on the job as an apprentice bus conductor. Here, he writes of his discovery of literary critic William Empson and his determination to model his style on the man best-known for Seven Types of Ambiguity. Indeed, piece after piece in Driving Home is testament to the hard work that Raban puts into his writing, from Empsonian close analysis to teasing out biographical details and their implications. Of Driving Home, he says: “The pieces that follow are readings – most of them readings of American landscape, literature and politics, along with some backward glances to England that may betray a lurking nostalgia for a society more settled in shape, more instinctively known, than the one I live in now,”

Many of the pieces are analyses of others who have lived in or explored the Pacific Northwest – among them the travelers Lewis and Clarke, novelist Bernard Malamud and poet Theodore Roethke. Another influence, Robert Lowell, is mentioned often. There is much, too, on the nature of travel, especially by sea: “I love the subtlety and richness of all the variations on the theme of society and solitude that can be experienced when travelling by sea”

Inevitably, American politics creeps in, too, with reportage on Obama’s presidential campaign, election night and his inaugural speech. One of the pieces on the theme of how a government uses technology to monitor the words and deeds of its citizens is clearly the inspiration for his novel, Surveillance. Along the way, there are gems such as: “One might see Guantanamo as the Bush administration’s most audacious attempt at nation-building: a tiny offshore state, run, like any totalitarian regime, by an all-powerful president, the military, and the intelligence services”

Of his initial move to Seattle, he writes, “I was a newcomer in a city of newcomers, where the corner grocer came from Seoul, the landlord from Horta in the Azores, the woman at the supermarket checkout from Los Angeles, the neighbor from Kansas City, the mailman from South Dakota”. This ability to think of oneself as a stranger in a strange land, and depict the familiarity and contradictions that result, has served Raban well through his writing career.

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