The publishing world is full of books about “My Trip to …(fill in your favourite heaven or hell)…” The greatest challenge a travel writer faces is finding somewhere to take us, body and soul, that matches up with classics like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics.” Gayle Forman makes a good stab at it in “You Can’t Get There From Here.”
This is a rather misleading title, because the whole premise of the book is that you can get there from here. You can get anywhere in the world, and with not too much difficulty. What makes this story different from the usual travel diary is that the societies the author looks for are far apart from ours in more than physical distance: transvestites in Tonga, Middle Earth fantasy gamers in Kazakhstan, a Lost Tribe of Israel in South Africa.
As a professional journalist, Ms Forman has one skill most travel writers do not: the ability to insert herself deeply into the lives of her subjects. In the few weeks or months that she visits them, she is able to find a niche in each of these uber-foreign societies that allows her to make some sense of them and pass that understanding along to us. It isn’t always complete, and none of us will ever know if it’s accurate, but by the end of Forman’s visit, we have a broader and more sympathetic picture of another small corner of our “shrinking world.” Another destination has been added to our, “I Probably Won’t Go There, But Wouldn’t It Be Interesting,” list.
Since I have made a journey of equivalent magnitude with my family, but never have found a slant that would sell it to the general public, I doubly appreciate the difficulties she faced in writing this book, so I doubly appreciate the degree of her success.
Unfortunately, Ms. Forman is not one of the great storytellers. Her journalist’s talent for immersing herself into the life of a sub-culture does not translate into an equal facility for bringing the reader in as well. We may become sympathetic to Forman’s subjects, but we always maintain a journalist’s distance that deflects empathy.
For an example, we don’t have to go any farther than the culture of her own marriage. A reappearing subplot concerns the marital difficulties the travelling couple experiences due to being thrown together for long periods of isolation in a foreign culture. This story is a good counterpoint to the cultures she describes, and a through-line to give the plot continuity. Nor can she be faulted in her balanced presentation of any argument she has with her husband. However, I never get the feeling that I am being drawn into their personal life in any intimate way. Ideally, we should be concerned for her and for her husband when they part at various times, for fear that the experiment has dissolved in failure and taken their marriage down with it. Instead, I rather dread these intervals as one might cringe when holidaying with friends upon hearing them have a spat in the next room.
However, any book that brings us to view a part of the world in a new and enlightening way is a triumph, and I recommend this book to travel buffs and those who appreciate the delightful differences between people and between societies.
Four stars out of five.