Eating, Praying, and Loving in Entirely Too Much Detail
A Contrary review by David M. Smith

        At first glance, it may seem odd to suggest a parallel between a book called Eat, Pray, Love and the fiction of Ayn Rand. Unlike Rand’s hard-nosed, atheistic novels, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a non-fiction account of her yearlong search for religious enlightenment following a difficult divorce. And unlike Rand’s weighty thousand-page tomes with miniscule typeface, Eat, Pray, Love fills a relatively slim 334 pages with a normal-sized font. However, as I shall explain, Gilbert’s account of her voyages ends up feeling no less lengthy, wearying, and ultimately dissatisfying than anything by Rand.
        Gilbert’s search for spiritual renewal takes her through Italy, India, and Indonesia (three “I’s,” as Gilbert delights in telling us). The quest for enlightenment is the animating motive behind the journey, but it wouldn’t have been possible if her publisher hadn’t given Gilbert a huge advance on the book she’s going to write about her trip… which is another bit of information Gilbert insists on sharing with us.
        In fact, there’s little that Gilbert doesn’t leave out of her 334 pages. “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth,” is her epigraph, and this commitment towards telling the so-called “exact truth,” omitting not even the slightest detail, is what lies behind Gilbert’s failings as a memoirist. Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote of the impulse behind personal memoir as the desire to view your life as a work of art, with God as the author. It’s a hollow idea, since (despite what Descartes said) there’s no reason to suppose that your God won’t conceal knowledge or even deceive you. Gilbert refuses to even admit the possibility; her God is so annoyingly on her side that any suspense or struggle in the ensuing journey is nullified. 
	The result is that, at the end of Gilbert’s journey, we are left with the sad feeling that nothing is settled for her, given the desperation with which she clings to “redemption” as her life’s overarching pattern. And here’s why the comparison to Ayn Rand is not entirely off the mark. Both Gilbert and Rand operate from equally arbitrary conceptions of life that they give to us, fully formed, at the outset, so that there’s little work to be done in the narrative other than the endless repetition of the same point, in every chapter. No episode in either Eat, Pray, Love or The Fountainhead feels like a genuine discovery at all, since we already know in every instance that a “discovery” is just around the corner, after a halfhearted and inevitably false gesturing toward some initial instability. 
        Often, Gilbert attempts to revive our interest by lapsing into a kind of superstition, drawing connections and finding significance in what seems merely coincidental—like the “three I’s” thing, which we’re told is momentous because the journey is all about “reclaiming her ego,” that is, her “I”—you get the idea. Perhaps this would have been interesting in a work of fiction. As it is, I suspect that not even God could make something interesting out of this.

David M. Smith is a writer living in Norway.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
Eat, Pray, Love
Elizabeth Gilbert
2007,  Penguin

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