How long did I last?
Till the 28th “tale” — at which point, my system couldn’t withstand another page. The structural integrity of my psyche was shaking and quaking, and I knew that if I did venture into the 29th tale, things inside would begin to fissure and fracture and snap. I had to stop reading “Eat, Pray, Love,” the No. 1 New York Times bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert.
It’s funny about books. I’m starting to think that writing books, especially novels, is like creating an illusion — providing carefully rendered, temporary interpretations of the world in a compelling way that suspends the reader’s disbelief and makes him want to enter your world. I’m not saying I’ve achieved this as a writer, but I do think that if your readers can’t suspend disbelief, it’s over — it’s like revealing the machinery of your illusions, the exposed slights of hand readers aren’t supposed to see.
And what makes an illusion most effective? I say it’s a dazzling distraction. I think about my favorite authors, and I realize they all possess some phenomenal literary “distraction” skills. Tim Dorsey is so damn funny, you pay no attention to the insane storylines he’s feeding you. Charlie Huston‘s prose style is so fun to read (such a literary aesthetic), you never even notice a few unlikely events that unfold in his world.
Which brings us to “Eat, Pray, Love” — in short, I wasn’t buying it.
The writing was excellent, and Gilbert’s narrative voice was compelling — and that sustained me for 87 pages. But ultimately, I could not suspend disbelief, and I couldn’t take another “tale” — of which there are 108 in the book. Somewhere along the way, this stopped feeling like a candid, authentic memoir and more like a deliberate, carefully planned-out and contrived “what-if” literary event — as in, “What if I spent a year traveling to three of the trendiest places in the world, included some angst over my divorce and bouts with depression, and wrote about it? Would that sell?”
Perhaps most bothersome was the fact that Gilbert had secured the book deal for “Eat, Pray, Love” (and the money for it) before she even set off on her journey to Italy, India and Bali, but hardly mentioned the deal in her memoir. After reading that, everything felt manipulated and controlled and fake. This wasn’t a personal, see-where-the-wind-takes-me journey. This was a planned-out literary event hashed out beforehand in New York.
Two friends of mine, Richardson and Riske, had already read the book and really enjoyed it. So we had at least a half-dozen debates. Slowly, I whittled away at them. Eventually, Riske sagged his head and sighed, “If we’d been discussing all this while I was reading the book, I don’t think I could’ve finished it.” I felt kind of bad about that — like I was ruining his memory of a great vacation. I’d had a friend do a similar thing to me with a book I’d loved — just goes to show you how subjective all this is.
And yet, I kept reading “Eat, Pray, Love.”
My wife Nancy, on the other hand, had stopped after only five pages. And now, every night, she’d glance at me and laugh to herself, saying things like, “I can’t believe you’re still reading that thing.” So one night I put the book on my lap and ask, “My friends wanna know why you had such a problem with this book.”
Nancy gets up. “Here, I’ll show you why.” She takes the book, fans the pages, closes her eyes and stops randomly on page 109. She reads aloud: “The tears begin when Mario — our host — weeps in open gratitude …” She shuts the book, tosses it to me and says, “That’s why I’m not reading it.”
And that was it for me — I moved on to Volume 2 of the crime-fiction journal, Murdaland. And I’m loving it.
January 29, 2008 at 10:39 am
It’s still a great book even if Gilbert did have to pitch the idea to a publisher before she could go on her journey. Every trip I’ve ever taken has had an itinerary of some sort but that didn’t make our experiences any less authentic. Unexpected things happen along the way, things you could never plan.
Gilbert set out on a journey of self-discovery. She could not predict where it would take her.
January 29, 2008 at 11:14 am
Excellent points from a thoughtful writer. … I think that if Gilbert had been more honest about what this book really was, and revealed a lot more about her divorce, maybe I woulda lasted another 28 tales. …
January 29, 2008 at 11:31 am
Maybe Melissa Gilbert should have stayed in her house on the Prairie after all…
There is no doubt that in Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert comes across as incredibly solipsistic. And whiny. And pretentious. But what can I say: I liked the book! I like the idea of just taking a year off and experiencing something different.
But I’m happy you stopped reading it. We should never continue reading something that we don’t enjoy. There is too much good stuff out there.
January 30, 2008 at 12:19 pm
Granted section 1 in Italy was more chick lit. with not enough food references to keep big eaters like you satisfied. I think you should start reading the India section. There are some experiences there that make you think about how you fit in with the universe…
.If you want a story about a good and sometimes gritty life story, I encourage you to read “The miracle Life of Edgar Mint” I think it has the balance of innocence, humor and touch of seedy that you will be drawn to.
February 1, 2008 at 9:30 am
I love Nancy’s method. If you flip open the book and randomly land on a sentence that is that bad, you should probably just stop reading. Or, if you’re really into people named Mario “weeping in open gratitude” then keep reading.
February 1, 2008 at 10:47 pm
It might interest you to know Murdaland was originally going to be called ‘Eat, Whine, Die’.
February 2, 2008 at 5:44 am
This is the typical book that my book group reads. It fulfills some need in us to feel that we understand or try to understand global concerns. But it rarely, and in this case, didn’t work for me. Too much of a skeptic, I guess.
February 7, 2008 at 8:05 am
Check it out, Greg: You’re in the vanguard of a Trend!
February 7, 2008 at 10:36 am
“Vanguard of a Trend’? Okay, now I feel special. … And I guess I’m not a lone. Embraced by the ELP Backlash Community.