Sunday, September 26, 2010

Eat, Pray, Throw Up

When I learned that Julia Roberts had gotten the lead in Eat, Pray, Love, I was at first appalled. How on earth could an actress whose range extends all the way from the feisty but shallow Pretty Woman to the feisty but shallow Erin Brockovich ever play someone on a spiritual quest?

Then I read the book. And now I believe that Roberts—who, despite attempts at girl-next-door cuteness, is really best at playing selfish bitches—is, once again, perfectly cast.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting different results, then I’ve grown one step closer to the loonybin each time I picked up a memoir and hoped to actually like it. The truth is that memoirs don’t get much better than Eat, Pray, Love. And that’s the problem: memoirs don’t get much better than Eat, Pray, Love. In other words, memoirs pretty much suck.

I did start out liking the book—really, I did. I especially enjoyed the Italy section: hey, I’m of Italian origin, I love pizza and gelato and flirtatious men—what’s not to like?

But it didn’t take long for my mood to turn. About a third of the way through, I realized I didn’t like the narrator. Still, I thought, that was hardly a deal-breaker: I’ve read Ayn Rand novels, for god’s sake; I’m used to self-centered heroines.

But as the book went on, the narrator became more and more obnoxious, and I could no longer pass my distaste off as interesting. The genre itself was the problem, I soon realized: in a novel, the author has the luxury of hiding behind a character, and she can make the character as bitchy as she wants without earning the ire of her reader. But in a memoir, that defense is gone: in a memoir, the narrator (however obnoxious) is, as far as the reader knows, indistinguishable from the author. That is the point, after all, isn’t it?

So, in the end, it wasn’t just the narrator of this book I disliked: it was the author herself.

But even that didn’t completely explain my growing revulsion for the book. I’ve hated authors before and still liked their work (once again, Ayn Rand comes conveniently to mind).

No, I decided, ultimately not liking the author wasn’t the problem, either. The problem was that I didn’t trust the author. I didn’t trust her one bit.

And that, I realized, is the key for me with any work. Whether it’s a memoir, a novel, a poem, or a recipe, I don’t have to like the author, but I do have to believe that she’s not selling me a bill of goods.

Unlike Oprah, I was not surprised when James Frey’s alleged true story fell into a million little pieces. After all, he had written it first as a novel and called it a memoir only because memoirs sell better in the confessional age that Oprah herself helped to create.

As I understand that controversy, the problem was simply that Frey was passing off the fictional as the real. I fear the problem with Eat, Pray, Love goes a lot deeper. Or, more to the point, a lot shallower.

I’ve read a lot of memoirs and a lot of novels, and one thing that all those pages have taught me is this: there is a great deal more truth in fiction than in memoir. Not verisimilitude—this happened and then that happened; she was wearing a red dress—but truth of character and purpose, self-awareness.

Memoir, this genre that in recent years has come to take up 50% of bookshelf space (if you can find a bookshelf in the Kindle age), is comprised largely of whiny exercises in self-pity and/or self-aggrandizement—but precious little self-awareness. This is the genre of “Mommy, look at me!” And frankly, I can understand why Mommy turned away in the first place.

My suspicion was aroused early on, when Gilbert refuses to elaborate on the reasons her marriage fell apart, claiming respect for her ex-husband’s privacy: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss his issues in my book.” But as I got deeper into the story—300 pages of “me, me, me,” and we all know how enlightened and spiritual that is—I started to develop my own theory about why the relationship ended.

One thing Gilbert does reveal at the beginning of the story is that she signed a contract for the book before her year’s journey began—in other words, this year of spiritual discovery started with a paycheck. Along the way, her narrative notes a lot of gastronomic pleasure in Italy, a budding romance in Indonesia, and one briefly described but profound meditation in India (which quickly pales into the background once said love affair begins in the next chapter).

Then, near the end we get the longed-for climax. And it’s a flashback.

When it comes time to reveal her most profound spiritual experience, Gilbert tells us about her first trip to Indonesia—before the year of pilgrimage that constitutes the arc of this book. And the experience is lovely—the kind of enlightened moment many people strive for. But she had it before the story of this book began. She had it before she signed the contract and got her advance.

I spent 300 pages with her, waiting for the epiphany that she could have revealed on page 25 if she’d chosen to tell her story chronologically. But instead she chose to construct a narrative that is at its heart false: this is not a spiritual story any more than the beginning of the book is an open depiction of a marriage in crisis. It’s as if Odysseus had already arrived home at the beginning of the poem and then spent 20 years sailing around the Aegean just for the hell of it.

Eat, Pray, Love is nicely written and humorous. (I haven’t even touched upon how amusing are its Stepin Fetchit depictions of the Balinese—those whom the Great White Woman educates, enlightens, and buys houses for—with other people’s money.) But at its core it is, for this reader at least, a manipulative exercise in disingenuousness.

The ad for the film shows Julia Roberts licking gelato off a spoon. How apt—delicious, sweet, and completely devoid of nutritional content.


At 6:47 AM , Blogger mrs g said...

Agree. I heard Gilbert speak at a conference and was very disappointed. Everyone around me was going ga-ga over her and I just saw a self centered woman who was making a lot of money being bitchy!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home