You can never be so sure where the 21st-century American novelist-slash-protagonist will pop up next; he or she really gets around. Maybe it’s eluding poetic muses in Madrid (Lerner), fumbling in Bulgarian public restrooms for sexual ecstasy (Greenwell), or on a fancy fellowship (Kunzru) or beer crawl (Oyler) in Berlin. From Iowa or JFK to the rest of the world—inky passports and innocence ready to be tried. Have American novelists given up on America and the (Roth’s phrase) American berserk? Have they, like the brain trust behind the James Bond franchise, decided that an exotic city does half the work of gripping the imagination, gussying up drama and denouement with special tints?
These nomadic meanderers aren’t quite the latter-day travel companions of Jake Barnes and Isabel Archer, facing the enrapturing mysteries and shaken-loose promiscuities of the new Old World. Their foreign theater has been too Starbucksified, the inner life cheapened and the whole globe shrunken grotesquely—perhaps to the size of a smartphone’s Google map. They seem stubbornly incapable of de-parochializing themselves or attaining moments of credible transcendence, whether through art or lovers or moral and political awakening. Even the Euro news cycle merely compounds the American; its far-right knuckleheads, self-regarding patrician liberalism and cruel migratory stresses rhyme with our own. The EU has its perks, but Jamesian hypnosis rarely features as one of them. Berlin here might just be another name for Brooklyn, with less parked capital and more room for floundering.
Emerson’s defeatist quip on travel comes to mind: “Travelling is a fool’s paradise. … My giant goes with me wherever I go.” Perhaps these Americans go away not to find access to a greater share of the world’s humanity, and catharsis from Americana, but only to be liberated into a less impeded everyday self-preoccupation. The literary tourist is the star of the show, and everything becomes stubbornly reflective. Outer and inward journey are linked, splicing together curiosity and egotism: overseas, every little dust-up, observed oddity or garbled phrase promises to restore significance to self-consciousness. So the writer of the age makes hay of so many cities and scenes. Are these excursions merely paper-thin literary supplements to the weightless global circulation of cryptocurrencies and “digital nomads,” or are we being offered the compelling depth and dislocation of real transit?
Consider Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, a travelogue that suggests how eerily spectral the genre can become. A top book of 2021 according to both the New York Times and Barack Obama, Intimacies records the opaque journey of an opaque woman to an opaque city. The whole plotline could fit in a personal ad: father died, mother returned to Singapore, nothing in America, off to try translating in The Hague for a change of scene, moral heebie-jeebies and maybe love. Kitamura’s style is laconic, the aesthetic one of elegant and searching anomie. The novel oscillates between high and low stakes, including considerations of ethnic cleansing, white-tie event coquetry and the jolts of the unfamiliar mundane in a faraway place (the schoolchildren on a tram saying appalling things just discernible to the language neophyte—an instance of the half-chosen intimacies the book meditates). At times, for all her sober-minded attention, the narrator can seem mostly on the market for a pleasant fugue: “I wanted to be taken out of my own thoughts, away from the entire impossible situation.”
In Intimacies, relatively motiveless drift and bureaucratic tourism are adorned with maximum moral prestige. The narrator’s stint as a pinch-hitting translator for alleged war criminals allows her to ponder the moral contamination involved in becoming a mouthpiece, and the impossibility of being a pure conduit. Her inner monologue is a low-grade George Steiner peroration on linguistic indeterminacy and barbarism: she and her interlocutors worry over coffee about the “possible demise of the European project”; she can’t enter a conference room with men in suits without finding shades of Titian; cigarette butts littering the streets in sight of public ashtrays evoke, as though in a parody of humanitarian progressive bona fides, the illiberal menace. A brush with Idi Amin could have led to more red-blooded thoughts (a mini sampler of some of the book’s pious wisdom: it takes time to get past a split, trauma leaves you looking over your shoulder, owning a property makes you more conservative, and “everything grows normal after a time.”). If The Hague is an obscure destination for the cipher-protagonist, it offers a grandiose writerly dream, linking pontifications on the slippery nuances of language to capital-A Atrocity.
Intimacies wobbles around a few either/ors: Will the narrator stick with an evasive paramour going through an unresolved divorce? Is an accused bigwig, a silver-tongued African despot, framed or dead to rights? Does The Hague have enough gravitational pull for her to stay around for good? After a healthy amount of flip-flopping, protracted ambiguity and earnest reflection, the novel flickers out of existence like a hologram trick. The art is self-effacement all the way through. Nothing has happened, and not quite in the Jamesian sense—containing the trace of ineffable experience and possible lives delicately abjured. Rather, a fugue undertaken for obscure reasons racks up moral capital and a series of ad hoc incidents (a street assault, a fling, insinuation into a court case), then evanesces. In quick order, the narrator encounters the face of evil, Western hypocrisy, romantic ambivalence and the anxieties of Babel—to what end?
Perhaps readers have been drawn to the very thinness of the journey and the elusiveness of the traveler, reading Intimacies as the study of a woman missing from the center of her own life. (A footnote to Elizabeth Hardwick’s maxim in Sleepless Nights that “When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.”) Fully inscrutable, her reticent waywardness might imply an unspoken midlife ache defying exact cause. The mystifying trip, if not a senseless lark, can suggest a haunted, almost somnambulist gravitation to a site of earnest moral reckoning and multilingual traffic—as though she has lost a sense of moral order, and of communicative tact, for which The Hague offers the sliver of a promise at redress. Think of it as a kind of pop-up odyssey. A splash of Derrida, a splash of Samantha Power, a splash of Auster-ian thin-man angst, plus an Orbitz search.
And yet because of the steadfast impersonality of the design, the international passage of Intimacies can feel a touch unreal, put-on—an ambience of dislocation in search of a novel’s shape and a person’s motivating troubles. On that reading, Kitamura’s narrator might as well have pivoted, in medias res, to teaching English abroad, or an MBA. Where the person is so airy, deracinated to the nth power, can any journey ramify meaningfully? Travel, in such cases, becomes a simulacrum of itself, relegated to a riddling world of Zeno-style paradox with true motion, or transformation, forbidden.
Such structural irony would be of a piece with much of the inconstant see-sawing that Kitamura devises, and one could well take Intimacies as an ambiguous spoof of the higher promise of jetting off: recording a trip that leaves the self untransfigured and even still in absentia. Such a trip, no matter its gravitas, would be a lesson in pure contingency, a detour among thousands of other possible detours through the world’s randomness machine. This would be a fully unsentimental portrait of travel, with a caption on the order of: eat little, don’t pray, love weakly. But in that case the trip Kitamura stages, for all its cumbersome accoutrements and apparent moral sincerity, would be destined to waffling immateriality from the start.
Maybe some jazz, great American export, can help writers find their way out and back home again in style. The Fugitivities, Jesse McCarthy’s jazz-infused (in its lyricism and patron saints) debut novel, offers a more rigorous accounting of the pleasures and perils of travel. With its wind-whipped title, the novel is haunted by the weightlessness and the in-betweenness that are as much the marks of soulful complexity as of errant escape. Where Kitamura offered the voyage of a silhouette, McCarthy’s escape artist is richly realized—complex in temperament, and contending with the hard lessons of fateful choices. Travel in The Fugitivities is scarcely an exercise in phantasmagorical deviation—if anything, it is almost impossibly freighted with the pressure of distinguishing the truer from the falser self and shining a path forward.
McCarthy’s twentysomething protagonist, Jonah, is a cosmopolitan fluke, a black American raised in Paris (his mind itself is a spinning globe, ricocheting Nas lyrics off Villon’s mais où sont les neiges d’antan, home truths about the cool “mocha” interloper in Paris and among the Brooklyn literati). Jonah’s Tocquevillean attentions find America wanting: riddled with savage inequalities, slack cultural offerings and the frothy economy of Silicon Valley data extraction. He distrusts both the easy mutiny of his father—a has-been dashiki-clad painter who climbed the “stepladder of white guilt” in Paris—as well as the corporate climb of an uncle back in Pleasantville, New Jersey. The universe tells Jonah to get out, and he listens. McCarthy stages an old-school trip to the tropics, to Rio and beyond, and The Fugitivities oscillates between fabulous and cynical visions of travel: a distillation of essential human multifariousness, or mere freewheeling distractability; a vector for the exhilarating urge to shape-shift and escape the limits of a culture, or a pointless absconding from the good you’ve already got (the woman you ought to love, the civic heritage that, for all its quandaries, you ought to accept as your own). In The Fugitivities, rootlessness is freedom until it’s a cheap mirage.
McCarthy’s novel shrewdly stages its demolition of the traveler’s fantasy of escaping the snags of biography, temperament and history. Jonah’s Emersonian giant travels with him, and the trip becomes a satire of getting nowhere fast. Here, ambivalences are accentuated, not resolved; the dream life beyond institutions and careers glimmers vapidly. Jonah can’t pass for one of the toughs on the Niterói beach in a Speedo, basking in effortless pleasure and vanity; instead, he’s sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, caught on a line of the Brazilian poet Melo Neto about history ending in “a melancholy of indifferent men reading newspapers.” A woman from the favela brings Jonah up short by asking how he’s anything but a tourist, then dances circles around his muddled motives and identity. The entrancing water in the bay may be too filthy to swim in. Jonah’s friend who’d seemed a beguiling guide turns out to be a half-assed poète maudit with dwindling funds, scribbling gobbledygook with liberatory pretensions while careening toward a mental break.
The travel buddies’ triangle blows up when Jonah makes a pass at his friend’s woman (a habitual offense—Jonah is the conceited individualist condemned to mimesis). Fast forward to Jonah surfacing solo in Montevideo on the receiving end of a caustic jeremiad from a whiskey-spattered old painter. The man flew the Uruguayan death planes decades ago and decries a new age of gadgets and thin wills. He calls Jonah a monkey while effusing about the greatness of Rembrandt. So much for Jonah’s dream of losing himself in mercurial flight, pure élan, or of elegantly tallying matters of style with global civics. Instead, the same old shit—flummoxed selfhood, societal perversity: tropical edition.
If The Fugitivities delivers another self-canceling odyssey, it is spirited in its negations, and spirited in the vistas on the electrically hodgepodge self it opens. For a suitably arch, pre-Airbnb paradigm, consider Wallace Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C,” the baroque travelogue that can only end in Hartford, Connecticut—the comedy of first-order intellectual and aesthetic aspirations bouncing ineffectually off the southern hemisphere, the hero as pell-mell vagabond.
Reading these books, you sometimes wonder if a class of American writers is tapped out from American mayhem and manners. Perhaps they are hankering, like their protagonists, for a sweet (or somber) release from the American carnival—delivering Anthony Bourdain-style injections of the wider world, the anywhere-but-here. On McCarthy’s portrait, the nomadic itch is equal parts spinelessness and wonder. It’s one thing to be charismatic wanderers, like the uprooted jazz greats Jonah admires, and another to be, as The Fugitivities proffers, “hapless Americans” with “nowhere to go.” Is this the epitaph for a new lost generation? In Santiago, it occurs to Jonah that he’s only wide of the mark: “What a random place to perish!” He gleans that in his “reflex to run away in order to live,” he will only trace out his own “ceaseless fugitivity.”
McCarthy ultimately sends his protagonist circling back to carry on all that he has been evading: the woman from his past he has been flouting, the search for his real, non-placeholder vocation, perhaps the more creative use of his complex ear (as, in the words of one of Jonah’s illustrious jazz heroes, “every new city is an opportunity to change your ear”). We imagine, per the standard conceit, that Jonah’s future may involve writing a book just like this one—in which the doubly or triply alienated returns to us a more mercurial sense of place, in which the dream of weightlessness is celebrated only just as much as it is ironized, in which the effort to shirk American shores yields exquisite nuances on the American theme, the multifarious individual wrestling with the cracked parochial.
Among other things, The Fugitivities is a subtle and hedging intervention in an era of aggressively drawn identitarian battle lines, playing the claims of idiosyncratic self-refinement against the vociferous demands of readymade collectives. Jonah demurs from the puffed-up, know-it-all radicalisms of his foils—the roommate who evangelizes a life of diligent intra-racial self-sacrifice, the wit who tells him that if Harlem is good enough for Albert Murray, it’s good enough for him, Paris and other coasts be damned. One senses that Jonah finds himself more in the Criterion Collection than in Coatesian dogmatics, that he wants to fight to preserve the nuances of a diffident sensibility, his own wildcard trickiness, composite of too many places, traditions and whims to number. Here, at any rate, is one of the virtues that might be in travel—not the weightlessness of the vapid and placeless, but of what cannot be easily pinned down, defying prefab tautology and simplistic essence.
It is jarring to recall, from our current flighty vantage, how travel could once strike the poet as a figure for impossible wish—Dickinson’s speaker longing to barter “Being” for “Brazil,” no dice; or how the dream of transit, a splendid inconvenience, could be a world, and a plot, unto itself. The dramas of departure and arrival perhaps once offered richer estrangements and disillusions to conjure with. If the new American journeyers will offer more than a stylish accessory to the evisceration of distances and depths, it will be because they recapture the play of sensibility across locales and escapes, and histories, that are not phantasmagorical but stubborn in their realness. They would, in McCarthy’s phrase, redeem for us the “distance between life and inner life … a leap incalculable.” No toy-globe, no hologram expeditions.