Book Review: The Global Soul by Pico Iyer

I stopped in a convenience store on Beacon Hill for a snack and while I got out my wallet to pay I place my library book copy of The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (2000) by Pico Iyer on the counter. The woman working the register exclaimed “Oh Mr. Bean, he’s so funny! He has a new movie coming out you know.” The cover of the book has a picture of a train station somewhere in Asia where a poster of Rowan Atkinson’s character hangs. This exchange seemed so appropriate to the theme of the book. Here across from the Massachusetts State House, two people not native to Boston – I believe she was from Vietnam and I’m an American of Irish descent – talked about an English comedian.

The Global Soul explores how the cultures of the world have become mixed up and the people as well have become far flung, leading to a sense of “floatingness” where people still yearn for a home. Iyer himself is a global soul of Indian descent, born and educated in England, transplant to California, and a second home in Japan. As a writer for Time magazine he travels the world and finds more and more global souls like himself in a multicultural soup that is becoming more unicultural under the influence of corporate interests.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the global soul. “The Airport” is Iyer’s month long adventure at Los Angeles International an international city without the city. In “The Global Marketplace” Iyer spends time in the hotels of Hong Kong where globetrotting business people conduct transactions in-between accruing frequent flier miles. Another city where people come from the wide world over sometimes to clash, sometimes to shop is Toronto, described in “The Multiculture.” In “The Games” Iyer details experiences at the several Olympics he has covered as a reporter, specifically the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. In “The Empire” Iyer returns to the land of his youth, England, a country which once controlled people throughout the world and is now filling up with those same people, many of whom seem to have a better concept of what it means to be English than the English. In the final chapter, “The Alien Home” Iyer visits where he somehow feels most at home despite being the ultimate outsider.

Overall the book is pretty good but it has its negative aspects as well. First, there are just far too many times where he gives examples of crazy multicultural pairings in the most unique places for it to even be a worthwhile example anymore. Imagine stories like that of the first paragraph of this post told over and over again with no seeming self-awareness of my repetitiveness. Second, Iyer writes with such a dour tone throughout the book. I suppose I can’t criticize him for being depressed by the whole thing, but surely there’s something good about mixing of cultures throughout the world. Surely I’ve appreciated learning from other cultures and enjoying their arts, foods, and traditions in my lifetime, but then again I’m a white American so I may be able to enjoy the good parts without having to endure the pain and prejudices.

Favorite Passages:

I’d often referred to myself as homeless — an Indian born in England and moving to California as a boy, with no real base of operations or property even in my thirties. I’d spent much of the previous year among the wooden houses of Japan, reading the “burning house” poems of Buddhist monks and musing on the value of living without possessions and a home. But now all the handy metaphors were actual, and the lines of the poems, included in the manuscript that was the only thing in my shoulder bag when I fled, were my only foundations for a new fin de siècle life. – p. 5

Airports are among the only places in our lives where we sometimes have to wait for six hours, or eight, or even ten; where we are actually paid off for waiting with free hotel rooms, or offered two hundred dollars in cash if we will wait voluntarily another three hours. Events are bunched up weirdly (like the people suddenly primitive, pushing their way towards the counter), and time slips and stretches as in the final elven seconds of a basketball games, which takes fifteen minutes to play out on TV.

I think sometimes we become children again in airports, irresponsible and without stewardship, of course, as I was a nine-year-old in Heathrow; but also spoiled and denied and restless and bemused all at once. One of the odd things about airports (like every other modern convenience) is that the instruments we make to serve us always hold us hostage, and many of the people in the gate lounges are clearly frustrated because they’re at the mercy of forces they can’t understand or control — red-eyed, bored, waiting to be transported. – p. 61

He had come to America in search of a new life, I inferred, and I was reminded, sadly, of how the unhappiest people I know these days are often the ones in motion, encouraged to search for a utopia outside themselves, as if the expulsion from Eden had been Eden’s fault. Globalism made the world the playground of those with no one to play with. – p. 244

No one but an American is likely to deny the appeal of American culture, and I can still remember, as a child in Oxford, sitting transfixed before Hanna-Barbera cartoons, or Lucille Ball in all her incarnations, not because they were American but because they were better and more vivid than anything else on TV (and later, in adolescense, finding images of possibility and hopefulness in Henry Miller or the Grateful Dead that simply weren’t available in England); anyone who’s grown up on Wimpy Bars and greasy “transport caffs” can appreciate how life in Oxford was made umimaginably more pleasant by the advent of first Baskin-Robbins and then McDonald’s in the late seventies, offering clean and dependable places in which to eat that were neither cheap nor expensive. Again, in fact, like America, England seemed to have been invigorated by its visitors from abroad, and it never seemed a coincidence to me that many of Britain’s proudest new traditions — the Globe Theatre, Granta, British Airways, and the modernized Oxford colleges — had been rescued by energetic “Yanks.” – p. 247-8