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Tuesday, July 11, 2006
That Strange Place Called America

Garrison Keillor wonderfully reviews a book by the French author Bernard-Henri Lévy entitled, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. I haven't read the book, but Keillor's opening remarks seem apt:
[This book] is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.

If Lévy's lamenting of America, its invocation the de Toquevillian tradition of showcasing a peripheral society to the imperial/colonial center, and the depiction of a society ripe with contradictions seems excessive, that's because it probably is. In fact, this narrative of America will more likely tell you more about French philosophes and intellectuals than it will about America. French society, as far as I can tell, currently wrestles with the need to understand the land of George W. Bush, as well as a country in which Muslims and immigrants leave peaceful and do not threaten to rebel. The resulting story, it seems, is about a patchwork society consisting of collected oddities and freaks, and, the discontented elites (Kerry and Stone). The brusque rebuttal and mockery of Lévy's moralizing that Keillor dishes up seems restrained in the face of such excess. Before we get to carried away by this Frenchman, now enters Christopher Hitchens, my favorite contrarian besides Justice Scalia.

Hitchens believes Keillor's invective to be representative of simple-minded American nativism. For instance, consider Lévy's paean to the Space Needle, which is: "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." Garrison Keillor, Hitchens complains, pithily dismisses it with "nine words and two letters": "OK, fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too." Not content to belittle Keillor, Hitchens sums up his position on Keillor's missive:
Well, take that, you baguette-brandishing poseur! You and your high-falutin' ways ain't wanted here, see, and some of us fellas figger we know how to deal with outsiders. If we want someone praising Seattle, we got plenty of fine locals to do it for us, you hear? How astonishing to see such humorless philistinism served up in a serious supplement devoted to books.
Such strong words might seem excessively harsh until Hitchens reveals Keillor's glaring sin of omission: obscuring the purpose of the book itself.
Like his model Alexis de Tocqueville, whose original project—which also fascinated Dickens—was the state of American prisons, he spends some time in our vast network of incarceration. I find his depictions and accounts highly compelling and very disturbing, too. Keillor, who was awarded a good deal of space as well as prominence for his blunt hatchet job, chooses not to make even a single mention of this element in the book. Perhaps he thinks the American prison system is the envy of the world? Or perhaps he just couldn't trust himself to say what he thought about some snooty Parisian poking his big nose in where it wasn't wanted and running down those good folks who look after law and order 'round here.

While I think Keillor's omission is noteworthy, perhaps even damning, I agree with the general thrust of Keillor's review that a strange fascination with America produced this lopsided picture. (The idea that author's systematically fetishize and misrepresent their objects of inquiry, particularly in travelougues, is one of the late Edward Said's central points in that wonderful book Orientalism.)
Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.
Lévy's endless moralizing and strange portrait combine into a modern day morality tale, one that, strangely enough, might comfort and fuel the anti-Americanism Lévy admirably fights back home.

In the end, I am forced to agree with Keillor's closing lines: "Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?"