08.12.10 6:40 PM ET
Elizabeth Gilbert's God Obsession
Eat. Pray. Love.
They are three of the most basic verbs in the English language. Everyone does at least two of these things every day, and has since the beginning of time.
And yet, since 2006, when Elizabeth Gilbert unleashed her memoir/unstoppable juggernaut of post-divorce enlightenment on an unsuspecting cosmos, these three innocuous acts have become shorthand for a particular kind of well-heeled, wish-fulfillment voyage of self-discovery, a cultural touchstone against which all subsequent examples of the genre will inevitably be judged.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey seemed to confirm for her what she had always believed: that she was special, beloved by God, on her way to a wondrous destiny ordained for her by the heavens.
Including, it seems, my own.
From the time my book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, a memoir about the two (mostly disastrous) years I spent traveling and living in Europe after college, was first announced almost two years ago, practically everyone I know, from media insiders to elderly relatives, has said the same thing.
“So you’re writing a travel memoir? Is it like Eat, Pray, Love?”
I always gave the same answer: “I don’t know. I haven’t read it.”
• Bryan Curtis: A Man’s Guide to Eat Pray LoveMy avoidance of Gilbert’s tome had nothing to do with any snobbish ivory-tower mistrust of mass popularity—I’ve always been of the “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong” school of thought in that regard. Nor did professional jealousy come into play: Elizabeth Gilbert’s sales have reached numbers that you can only view in uncomprehending awe, like when you read how many people died under Stalin. It had just quite simply never been at the top of my list. My own travels had been more of the Drink, Scream, Ill-Advised One-Night-Stand variety. I never felt the urge to search for God, having quite purposefully banished him from my life shortly after I cashed the checks from my bat mitzvah.
But my book was published last week, and the questions (especially in light of the upcoming Julia Roberts film adaptation/tie-in fragrance line) continued unabated. Not wishing to find myself stuttering stupidly under the gaze of a knowing interviewer (this happened to me once before, when a journalist asked me to compare my work to David Foster Wallace’s; it wasn’t pretty), I finally read Eat, Pray, Love.
And finally, journalists and book bloggers and publishing people and book-club presidents and friends’ moms and that guy who keeps emailing me from prison, I can tell you what I think.
There are some similarities between Liz’s journey (Liz being what she calls herself throughout the book; this is not a facetious ER2 situation) and my own. We both eat a lot of pizza. We both witness exotic sights that change our perspective forever: For example, Liz scales a majestic cliff in India where she sits in the palm of God; I see my very first adult male foreskin! We have colorful adventures with Italian men: Liz makes friends with the adorably Benigni-esque Luca Spaghetti; I am sexually assaulted by a pack of Napolitano dental students. Near the end of our respective stories, Liz and I meet the men we will eventually marry. Hers is a dashing Brazilian with the patience of the Buddha, the sagacity of Yoda, and the sexual prowess of the young Genghis Khan. Mine has a job and is pleasant to me most of the time.
I don’t mean to be hard on my husband. He is a nice man and a good sport and tries his best to make me happy. Unfortunately he, like the other characters in my book, has the disadvantage of being an actual human being.
It is on this point that Liz and I begin to diverge in our travel philosophies.
Throughout Eat, Pray, Love, every person Liz encounters mysteriously seems to appear at precisely the right moment to lovingly shepherd her through the next phase of her spiritual journey. No one is ever impatient or disinterested or unkind. Richard from Texas, the luscious and supportive Giovanni, even her future husband “Felipe” all seem to have been biding their time in their respective idyllic locations, serenely honing their meditation techniques and making artisanal mozzarella until the intrepid Liz shows up and they can at last fulfill the sole purpose of their existence, which is to guide our heroine to ever-ascending heights of sensual, spiritual, and sexual ecstasy.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that Gilbert has made these people up. Total veracity is a slippery thing in this genre; it’s the particular task of the memoirist to distill a multitude of real-life perceptions into a compelling and meaningful narrative. To achieve this, you sometimes have to put words in characters’ mouths, or tweak events slightly to capture the essential truth of an experience (and only write about things that can’t easily be fact-checked—hi, Oprah!). But the neatness of Gilbert’s narrative, and the unstinting helpfulness of the entities that people it, belies what I believe to be the defining difference between our books.
Unlike Gilbert, my travels were not planned with a book in mind, let alone subsidized by a hefty advance. Adrift after my undistinguished graduation from college, I managed to hitchhike across the Atlantic on the back of the European tour of a play in which I had a tiny role. No one was more surprised than me that I wound up staying so long, and I found myself fascinated by my total irrelevance. Here was an entire country, an entire continent of people, going about their business, working, worrying, eating, praying, and loving, and they literally could not care less if I lived or died. Elizabeth Gilbert traveled the globe and subsumed blissfully it into herself; in contrast, I found myself thrilled to be subsumed.
Reading Eat, Pray, Love, I kept asking myself what accounted for this divergence in perspective. I don’t think that Gilbert is disinterested in the human condition or the world. I don’t even think she’s that self-absorbed (but of course, I went to acting school, where even the most unassuming of us could have given her a run for her money in that department).
I think it has something to do with God.
Liz, quite literally, is looking for Him. She speaks of Him constantly throughout her book. She prays to Him, on her knees, on that bathroom floor during the meltdown of her marriage. She writes despairing notes to God in her journal, and miracle of miracles, God—funneled through her, of course—writes back. I love you, God says, in her handwriting. I’m here for you. I’ll always take care of you, no matter what.
This idea of God as half-security blanket, half Sex and the City’s beaming Harry Goldenblatt, is completely antithetical to the idea of God I was raised with. The God I was brought up to worship was a mercurial force requiring annual appeasement in the form of High Holiday services, when the entire congregation would gather to personally apologize to Him for eating bacon and cheating on our taxes, and beg Him not to kill us this year. Our God delighted in devising mostly nonsensical strictures and demands by which his Chosen People were expected to abide, but beyond that, He didn’t care what happened. I mean, if He couldn’t be bothered to intervene in the Holocaust, how could you really expect him to give a damn about your boyfriend trouble? Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey seemed to confirm for her what she had always believed: that she was special, beloved by God, on her way to a wondrous destiny ordained for her by the heavens. Whereas I received, and was comforted by, the confirmation of the precise opposite: There is no plan. I’m one of billions scurrying around a senseless universe. And honestly, the idea couldn’t come as more of a relief.
Now I guess we’ll have to see if Richard Dawkins gives me that blurb.
Rachel Shukert is the author of Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories. Her new book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, will be published in August by Harper Perennial. Follow her on Twitter.