Pico Iyer is a prolific writer, so prolific that I haven’t read anything by him (oh, but please be kind: there’s a lot to read out there). Graham Greene is also an author of no small merit, with 30+ books (novels, short story collections, memoirs) to his name, and while I’ve brushed upon only a few select titles, such as The Quiet American and Brighton Rock, his writing instantly excites, not only for the vast array of settings and circumstances, but for the religious undertones that compete with a blatant lack of moral compass.
Iyer’s latest book sketches the author’s life alongside the life of Greene. In The Man Within My Head stories of Iyer’s upbringing in America and England, his time in Bolivia, an unintentional experiment with MDMA, and unfortunate events involving automobiles are juxtaposed with accounts of Greene’s coming of age in England in the era of flight and television, his unconventional Catholic attitude, his hate for Mexico and support of Cuba at a problematic time. While Iyer provides many details and insights about Greene, the book comes off as nothing more than a personal diary entry posing as an enigmatic character study.
It is easy to see why Iyer identifies with Greene so much. Both are worldly men. Iyer, currently living in Japan, laments how he is strip-searched every time he returns to his home country. Likewise, in the same paragraph, Iyer proposes “that a physical location is unimportant…home lies in the things you carry with you everywhere and not the ones that tie you down.” Greene himself was never one to settle on a particular location, and seemed to revel in his “foreignness.” But where Iyer has found a way to make a relationship work (perhaps helped by modern communication), Greene’s love life was more distraught: “It was as if there was a question mark where his heart should be.” At the same time is a prime example of the dual nature of Greene. Iyer suggests that his “need for intimacy seemed at least as strong as his need for apartness.” This assertion, mentioned close to his interest in sex shows and brothels paint the portrait of womanizer who views relationships only in self-interest and convenience. While Iyer tries to defend that this isn’t particularly true, (“he came to life around women, every one of his friends told me”), he does admit that Greene may have turned to “professional lovers” as there was no way he could betray them.
While it is interesting to consider the apparitions that follow both authors, Iyer doesn’t necessarily make this a universal topic. This point is driven home when he brings his father into the mix, and which even confuses his wife as to who he is actually writing this book about (the three major sections are titled “Ghosts,” “Gods” and “Fathers”). Likewise, by trying to cover both his own and Greene’s life, he doesn’t quite paint the most detailed picture (the book clocks in at 238 pages). Iyer admits he wasn’t interested in “Greene the man of politics or Greene the Catholic or Greene the rumored spy.” Therefore, he fails not only to get us more interested in Greene, but in the man within whose head he lives.
Despite such idiosyncrasies that we learn about him, something about The Man Within My Head makes Greene seem so fascinatingly uninteresting. Every story seems only a glimpse, and while Iyer may find his connection to Greene so brilliant, he doesn’t explain it in an entirely convincing manner. As for the bits about Iyer’s life, it is the same thing. Sure he gives a bit of background into his life and the major life-changing events, but barely beyond what could be found in a Wikipedia article. Essentially, this book really only works for a very narrow audience: those that are familiar both with the works of Graham Greene and Pico Iyer, and more curious about the latter’s life than the former. For those that actually fit this criteria, I say keep going with all of the works you haven’t read by these authors; diving into their deep cuts will be much more rewarding.
Andrew Hertzberg is a Chicago music writer for Windy City Rock, a deep dish pizza slinger, and a night-time bike riding enthusiast. His recent reviews include Teju Cole’s Open City, Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.