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Stephen Levin's approach to literary theory and analysis in The Contemporary Anglophone Travel Novel borders on bricolage, drawing from a wide range of disciplines and philosophical traditions—including psychoanalysis, neo-Marxism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, aestheticism, sociology, cultural anthropology, and tourism discourse—in order to demonstrate how recent adventure travel narratives respond to crises of subjectivity under the conditions of postmodernity and late capitalism. Levin notes that, consonant with recent trends in tourism that valorize (and commodify) authenticity, contemporary travel novels display a preoccupation with the concepts of authenticity and selfhood. These novels depart from the traditional modes of travel narrative rooted in Enlightenment empiricism and Romantic sentimentalism, a move that for Levin suggests the emergence of a third type of travel narrative, which he terms "a literature of negation." He defines such texts as compensatory fictions in which the characters attempt to redress "a perceived void produced by the specific conditions of modern social life" (2). Levin argues that contemporary adventure travel narratives stage and restage radical escape fantasies that provide a critique of social conditions under late capitalism, even while these fantasies ultimately prove untenable.
The crises of subjectivity experienced by the characters Levin analyzes result from the irreconcilability of their drive for self-determination and the constraints on subjective possibilities under the paternal social order, which Levin identifies with the Lacanian "law." Each of these characters thus "enacts a dramatic negation of the social field of signification" to the extent that "self-annihilation emerges as a viable alternative to re-incorporation into the social order" (3). Levin systematically diagnoses these travel narratives in psychoanalytic terms, organizing his book according to particular oedipal pathologies: obsessionality, hysteria, and melancholia. As he explains, each of these sections "expands upon a failure of the law to underwrite subjectivity and follows the travelers' efforts to write themselves into being outside the parameters of the law" (8), efforts that have self-destructive and often disastrous results.
In chapter 2, "The Contemporary Crusoe: Obsessionality and Adventure Travel," Levin considers travel narratives centered on characters with world-effacing, utopian visions who reject the object-world of modernity in search of authentic experience. He characterizes the obsessional idiom as "a disposition to geography that aims to organize space according to a system of representation devised [End Page 182] by the explorer" (36), and he differentiates it from the melancholic and hysterical idioms discussed in later chapters. In the tradition of Crusoe, the obsessional adventurer seeks mastery over otherwise unmediated space that he can "suffuse with his own authentic imaginings" (34). After meticulously grounding this category by reviewing the structure of obsessionality through Freud's "Rat Man," and establishing Crusoe as a prototypical obsessional traveler narrative, Levin provides astute and finely nuanced close readings of three novels: Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast, Alex Garland's The Beach, and Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.
Mosquito Coast serves to exemplify how obsessional travelers "seek separation in order to articulate their personal idiom, but . . . ultimately fail to neutralize and control objects in the way they desire" (60). In Garland's The Beach, the central character becomes entranced by a map of a secluded beach bequeathed to him by another doomed, obsessional traveler; once he locates the beach, he and a small enclave of inhabitants who have come before him go to dramatic lengths to preserve the supposed authenticity of their sanctuary and protect it from the corruption of intruders. The Beach demonstrates, for Levin, how obsessional travelers "commit to generating a new law, and do not merely reject an existing one" (68). Christopher McCandless, the protagonist in Into the Wild, rejects utterly both his own father and the paternal order, attempting to divest himself of material objects and interpersonal relationships in a "modus vivendi that embodies the very notions of autonomy and self-reliance" (69), and for which he is willing to risk his life. All three texts illustrate the impulse to seek an alternative to a social order weighted with constraints and "dead objects" (76), but the...