Despite watching Elizabeth Gilbert on Oprah years ago, I somehow managed to miss reading Eat, Pray, Love when it came out in 2006. I don’t particularly like memoirs, for the reasons discussed below.
Nonetheless, when something becomes a cultural phenomenon, I figure I should see what the fuss is about. So when I saw a paperback copy on sale for 50 cents at my local library the other week, I handed over my $1 bill (and let the library keep the change!). I read the book on my 11-hour flight back from Japan.
My first thought is that Eat, Pray, Love is a very pleasant read. Some books are slogs. This was not. It easily passed the time, and Gilbert’s self-deprecating humor kept some aspects of the book from becoming insufferable. The story is tight. The prose is crisp and clean as befits a journalist and National Book Award finalist. The tale is original because Gilbert is quite a character — the sort of woman who’d dance on the bar at Coyote Ugly and write about it. I wouldn’t call the book spiritually significant, as some people seem to think. The hardest spiritual work she might have tried would be attempting to save her marriage, but that might not land you on Oprah. I’m also mystified by her caricaturization of motherhood, but I’m saying this as a mother of three who was on a flight back from Japan while reading her book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the book a good deal. Gilbert is a fabulous writer, and I wouldn’t have much to complain about if Eat, Pray, Love was a novel. Indeed, in my newsletter a few months ago, I said I quite liked a similar novel by Pam Houston. I'm looking forward to Gilbert's next book, The Signature of All Things, which is a novel (and deals with botany! Little known fact: this is one of my favorite subjects).
But Eat, Pray, Love isn’t being sold as a novel. It’s a memoir — sold as Gilbert’s true tale — with all the credibility non-fiction gives. Is this believable? I’m telling you, it really happened. Non-fiction has that power. Things that might be corny or strange in fiction are allowed in non-fiction because it’s perceived as the truth.
The problem with this, as applied to Eat, Pray, Love, is two fold. First, this is not memoir as history. It is created memoir. Gilbert got a good-sized book advance to go find herself in Italy, India, and Bali. If I challenged you to live your life over the next year in such a way that it would create a good story — and gave you six-figures to do so — you might do things differently than you otherwise would. You might befriend people because they’d make good characters. You might do things to advance a narrative. This is not a story of “one woman’s search for everything” as if it is your everyday woman living life. Her book contract depended on her being enlightened. So she became enlightened, much as A. J. Jacobs undertakes stunt journalism for the hilarity that ensues.
My bigger issue, though, seems like a small one to most people: she changed names. Lots of names “for various reasons” she writes in the intro, including everyone at the Ashram in India except Richard from Texas. Most stunningly, she changed the name of the man she falls in love with in the Bali section. In the book he is Felipe. In real life, his name is José Nunes. She winds up marrying him a few years later — which means his real name is part of the legal record. Maybe she didn’t think the relationship would last, but to me, changing a name like this — and changing other people’s names — turns them into just characters in her story, as opposed to real people with their own hopes, dreams, and views of existence.
Indeed, that’s my problem with changing names generally. It is the first step toward fictionalizing. Gilbert doesn’t claim to have created composite characters, but many memoirists do to create a better story. After all, if you’ve changed a name, then you don’t have to defend yourself as much to the real person. It becomes easier to tell a story the way you wish to have it seen, or the way it sounds better. Again, if the person’s name is changed, how can he complain? Sometimes writers change names for reasons of “privacy.” But if you care about the person, and she wants privacy, why are you writing about her?
Truth is a tricky thing. I encounter this all the time with time logs. The way we perceive our lives, and then retell stories, is often different from what actually happened, or the way other people perceive events. But in something that purports to be true, I think we have an obligation to not intentionally make things false, while still drawing from the power that labeling something as non-fiction gives. As Gilbert commands in the quote at the start of her book, “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.” It’s good advice.
In other news: Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune interviews me for her Balancing Act column: Is time really the enemy? That link might be behind the pay wall, but you can usually read one story through social media, so head over to my Twitter page (@lvanderkam) and you can find the link there, too.
CNN/Health says you have enough time to work out.
SpouseBUZZ chooses 168 Hours for its military wife/man spouse book club.
Modern Mrs. Darcy writes about investing in herself. Interesting question from one of my three conferences this past week: have you invested as much in yourself as in your car this year? Since I don't put a lot of ongoing funds into my car (I paid cash when I bought it and don't drive that much) my answer is probably yes, but it may be a thought-provoking comparison. Or not, after all, sometimes you need a car to invest in yourself (going to classes, for instance).
Are you keeping track of your work hours this week?