Hackneyed States

Lead Review

Hackneyed States

Stephen Fry in America:  Stephen Fry Harper, 2009,  pp 346, Rs 399

In the English-speaking world, the strongest poles of influence — the two countries that have most moulded the speech and ideas of its colonies and allies — have long been Britain and the United States of America. Each is hard-wired by its soft power; each intoxicates its cultural progeny with a potent cocktail of clichés. The Brits are trapped by their sodden weather and ditto temperaments, their high tea, their mighty royalty, their mild manners and their resilient superior labia; their heigh-nonny-no, oojah-cum-spiff, toodle-oo and bally-ho, old fellow, old chap. The Americans, conversely, are all about the big money, big living, big egos, big sentiments and Big Macs, coupled with raging intolerance, trailer-park logic and endless cups of coffee; about never-say-die, come-what-may, one-time-only, howdy-pardner, gee-whiz but no-can-do, ole buddy, ole pal.

If television and the publishing industry have conspired over the years to turn these unjust caricatures into enduring portraits, the same two communicators have been called forth now in coalition to sheepishly unsmash some of that reputational wreckage. The crier entrusted with this summons is Stephen Fry, television superstar, techno-Jeeves and general wit-about-town, who is regularly aggrandised by a drooling UK media and public as Quintessential Blighty rendered in glorious human form. And Fry’s public relations weapon is a combination TV-show-cum-travel-journal called, righteously, Stephen Fry in America. The latter part of that combo has just been released here in India, in a backpack-friendly paperback edition
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In it, Fry drives through all 50 states of America in a London cab, a conceit that functions simultaneously as a USP as well as a rather loud, but apt, visual metaphor. The book is segmented into five parts (for the country’s major geographical regions), and further subdivided into 50 chapters (one for each state).

These chapters follow the manner of a guide-book, beginning with brief descriptions of each state, including its official animal, plant, bird, food, drink, flavour of ice cream, favourite colour and/or sexual preference, followed by a list of famous people who hail from there — some living members of which play host to Fry as he passes through their state — and finally onto the ripe flesh of its narrative. There is also a panoply of photographs, deployed at welcome intervals, of the author testing the many weathers of uncharted Yankeedom. While such a format makes the book accessible to Everyman, it is sublimated by Fry’s witty and erudite prose, which is charming and informative, if somewhat minimal.

The pilgrimage on the whole pans out like the best of American self-help. It begins with a feel-good message, supplements it with a series of anecdotes, bolsters the narration with a bristle of relevant references and trivia, and ends with a hopeful moral and a soul transformation. The idea is to make a convert of you: to rid you of persistent associative memories of Big Brotherly ill-will such as oil wars, strong-arm strategies and the eccentric Bush administration, and to replace them with freedom, abstraction and hospitality. If such a cheerful method offends your innate Limey cynicism, this book could be the very tonic for your ills.

America, Fry asserts, is not all cowboys and capitalism (and so, by extension, he seems to imply, Britain needn’t be all Tories and tweed). Fry’s crossings over state-lines are often accompanied by corresponding shifts in paradigm. And the more lines he crosses, the less he sees America as a physical landscape than as an uninhibited dream of individualism and diversity, in which the only human evolutionary imperative is risk-taking.  
Its spatial limitations and editorial direction make Stephen Fry in America a precocious, slightly awkward offspring of the two broad categories of travel literature represented by, say, Lonely Planet and In Patagonia. This is America for the intelligent reader with an avian attention span, much like Stephen Fry’s Twitter account. While the book displays Fry’s confident knowledge, sagacity and humour, it also provides some insight and context — if not for a great American biography — at the very least, for a condensation of the American spirit, serving efficiently to whet one’s appetite for a deeper study, if one should so desire it, of that palimpsest-like country.

Lesser travel writers try much too hard, much too often, to document the unusual and eccentric and unconventional, so much so that their chronicles end up being haphazard collections of curiosities and little besides. Fry also pursues the offbeat, but he does so while making hundreds of fresh and interesting connections between the everyday and the esoteric, thereby breathing new life into the conventional.

As a polymath who lets his varied interests such as history, literature, language, food, technology and a million things in between shape his itinerary and experience of a place, Fry is a more than entertaining guide.

The only minor drawback to the book, aside from its limited scope, may be that Fry’s comparisons, idioms and cultural inferences are designedly aimed at a British reader (perhaps because the original audience for the BBC TV show as well as the book were residents of the UK). He may have tailored it differently were the target viewer/ readership meant to be global from the outset, one surmises. But that hardly matters in the final tally, as, after all, why would you pick up a travel book — especially one that journeys to a land that has already been anatomised so obnoxiously by the media — if not to invigorate one’s world-view, but briefly, through another’s eyes?

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