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To the outsider, the culture of the United States appears deceptively accessible. Through its news-media, its literature and its popular music, its cinema and its politics, the country seems forever to be exposing itself, like a cabaret artist, like a monument, like a neon light, to the rest of the world’s gaze. And yet, as Timothy O’Grady reveals to us as he undertakes a 15,000-mile journey by car, on a circuit around the perimeter of his native land, it is more complex and mysterious than almost any other nation in existence.
Starting in New York City, he works his way north and westwards, the dial of his internal radio pointing now to musicians, now to writers and thinkers, now to friends and personal reminiscences, now to details of landscape, architecture or philosophy. He stops in San Francisco and returns to Europe for eight months before resuming his journey, moving east and south, going all the way down around Florida before turning north towards New York once more.
There have been several precedents for his book, in the sense that many authors, from Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid-19th century to Mark Twain at the turn of the 20th, from Henry Miller between the two World Wars to Robert Pirsig in the ‘60s, have attempted to create personalised maps of the United States. O’Grady’s project is a little more ambitious and perhaps also more successful in that he manages a complete tour of the property, so that by the end of it, for a few moments we catch a glimpse of the whole astounding prospect. Of course, our perspective remains similar to that of an ant staring up at a Botero sculpture, all bulging curves and astonishing textures, but for that instant when we end the journey with him, we feel our minds extended and our understanding enriched by all that he has seen and thought, remembered and endured.
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