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The Fourth World 

Frenetic leisure, acid archaeology and the new breed of travel writers

Thursday, Mar 20 2003
Illustration by Tavis Coburn

In the old days, when planning a trip to a distant land took more energy than a few keystrokes on a laptop, writers savored every encounter with the foreign. They wanted to break on through to the other side. But in recent years, it's become perfectly normal to buy discount fares on carriers whose names one first encountered in tragic headlines; trips unthinkable a decade ago are now paid for with a couple of weeks' work at the 7-Eleven. This global culture has spawned a new breed of travel writing, whose heroes, wised-up but not wise, make Paul Bowles look as adventurous as Marco Polo.

It's this new casualness toward going places that unites a trio of very different authors — French nihilist Michel Houellebecq, English neurotic Geoff Dyer and American idol Dave Eggers. Unlike literary travelers of the old school like Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer or Jonathan Raban, this new generation takes journeys that are defined by experiences shared with others also meandering along the same road. Locals remain cyphers, geography incidental: The temples they see might as well be the painted backdrop of a '40s movie set. In other words, what they find There could just as well have been found Here. And while each of these literary stars has chosen his own universal language with which to navigate his literary world — sex, drugs, money — none of them is rushing in to be the next Margaret Mead. Instead of wanting to dig into the culture they're visiting, they barely talk to the residents.

Theroux lived a year in Singapore before writing Saint Jack; Raban will commit however long it takes to master a new world, whether it's by sailing his own boat from Seattle to Juneau or traveling down the Mississippi by boat and talking to everyone he meets. That's what makes these veterans funnier, wiser and more thorough than the new travel writers; it's also what makes them old-fashioned. The new boys present a more accurate representation of what most travel is actually like at this time in history: thoughtless, solipsistic, casual yet unpredictable. Seeing the Nile isn't strictly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sunrise at Cheops will always be there. It's been there for millennia. In the world of Orbitz.com and the zillions of ads found at the back of papers like this one, you can always go back to Egypt next spring — and take your mom, your boyfriend, your archaeologist . . .

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Last year, Dave Eggers charmed critics with You Shall Know Our Velocity (McSweeney's Books), a sprawling tale of two 20-somethings from Wisconsin who embark on a spontaneous Amazing Race­style mission after the death of their friend, on which they give out American money in places like Senegal and Latvia. But Eggers' sharpest insight is not his ear for youthspeak or his eye for Third World detail; it's his proficient grasp of a First World concept: branding. He coins the term "the Fourth World" to describe the voluntary realm — "half thought, half actual" — inhabited by travelers creating a tribe of their own. In this self-created "staging ground," the traditional stuff of tourism — monuments, the art, even the beaches — can wait. The Fourth Worlders are working on a kind of frenetic leisure more liberating than the boot-camp rigidity of a Japanese tour bus because they're not in it for the Mona Lisa, they're in it for the moment.

Most clearly a collector of moments is Geoff Dyer, author of 2000's Paris Trance (and the Weekly's book critic in residence). His latest, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It (Pantheon), is essentially a slouchily charming collection of "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" reports as dispatched by an intellectual goof. He describes how, as soon as he gets to Tripoli, he wants to run home to England and watch soccer on the telly, and remembers Amsterdam best in terms of dashing in and out of buildings to escape the rain.

Of course, much of the time, he's traveling in an altered state. In Paris, he enrages a lithe acquaintance by getting her high on skunk in the 11th arrondissement. In Rome, he practices what he terms "acid archaeology," tripping with a Californian neighbor because he "wanted to enter the dead time of statues and see things through their unpupiled eyes." It's telling of his deliberate seclusion that he says the statues' eyes — rather than the eyes of any of the living Romans around him. Where a writer like Pico Iyer will brief-history you on Khmer civilization, walking you through the must-see Wats of Cambodia, Dyer just shrugs: "We were all templed out."

Dyer's random trips around the globe build to a finale back in the U.S. A post-breakup night spent in a Detroit hotel room watching Debbie Does Dallas, all alone, prompts him to take charge of his life — to move on. And he does, ending the volume at Burning Man, the Emerald City of pomo seekers in the Nevada desert. But like Dorothy, who had to go to Oz to find there's no place like home, Burning Man is really Dyer's Kansas. After all his international adventures, he finds communion back in the decadent, familiar West, reveling with the like-minded and equally dislocated.

 

A much darker version of a similar thing permeates Platform (Knopf), Michel Houellebecq's vivid new media-bait of a novel. His misanthropic stand-in, also named Michel, takes the money left him by his brutally murdered father and runs off to Thailand. Accompanied by a head full of embittered rants (he rails against both German johns and — plumping for a fatwa — Islamic crazies), he joins a tour group but is quickly repulsed by his compatriots who complain how "everything is touristy." Michel's all for tourism, but his own particular kind: recreational sex. At Bangkok's Temple of Dawn, he makes mental notes to buy cheap Viagra; passing Thailand's rubber plantations, he thinks: condoms. Ironically, he falls in love, not with a Thai hooker but with Valerie, who's French — precisely the kind of Western woman he went halfway around the world to avoid. After copious copulation, they decide to take their romance to another level by setting up sex clubs catering to Europeans in Thailand.

The book ends with a horrific deus ex machina, with which Houellebecq seems to predict the impending end of the narcissist's reverie. Michel and Valerie's sexual-romantic utopia isn't destroyed from within, as were the sun-kissed backpackers in The Beach. Paradise is literally blown to bits by Islamic terrorists, people who are eager to break on through to the other side. For all we know, Houellebecq's vision of tourist apocalypse could be the first step toward an even newer breed of travel writing — one taking into account our wary, sweaty-palmed post-9/11, post-Bali bombing universe. The Fifth World, perhaps, where people only dream of traveling.

  • Frenetic leisure, acid archaeology and the new breed of travel writers

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