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Jan/Feb 1999 - Volume 31 Issues 1&2


New Worlds

by Suzannah Lessard

AN EMPIRE WILDERNESS:
Travels Into America's Future

By Robert D. Kaplan

Random House, $27.50

Robert Kaplan is a vigorous reporter who thinks on his feet, often invoking historical perspective, but never staying still, always voraciously searching for the outlines of the future in his restless travelogues, as he calls his works. They are really much more than that, but the form gives him room for wide-ranging references, for a certain casual associativeness, combined with the satisfaction of always moving on to something new. This is not to suggest that we have a lighthearted author here. An article that he wrote some years ago for The Atlantic Monthly, "The Culture of Anarchy", a terrifying description of the disintegration of culture and political order in Africa and Asia is said to have been a cult item among ambitious young neoconservatives in government in Washington, with issues handed around until they fell apart. Kaplan himself is in his late thirties, possibly beyond the reach of the adjective "young," and far too concerned for the fate of the weak and unlucky than is compatible with neoconservativism. But the popularity of his article, which could nestle nicely into the Book of the Apocalypse, was an eye opener as to the world view of upcoming generations. In the book that arose out of the article, The Ends of the Earth; A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, he expanded his picture of impoverished, deracinated populations shifting about without hope in a degraded environment. A premise of that book was that our conventional maps, with their neat national boundaries and capital cities in bold lettering, are useless as descriptions of a world that more and more is reverting to ethnic alliances that are bounded by geographical features. This quest to see through false maps to actuality - to the configuration of the future - makes The Ends of the Earth an exciting book, however gloomy.

An Empire Wilderness brings this same energy and commitment to America, and here, I have to say, I felt myself to be in a better position to judge what I was reading. I was struck first of all by the fact that though the material was drastically less alarming, the tone of pessimism was almost identical to that in The Ends of the Earth. Kaplan knows that to take on this new subject is to reveal himself. "To write about one's country is the most problematic form of autobiography," he writes in the introduction, and, indeed, we learn in this book that this author sees the world through a certain lens. After reading An Empire Wilderness one has a much clearer understanding of the author's limitations, in particular a tendency to gravitate toward a scary edge of despair, to find that in his material whatever it might be. But this is not to discredit the work in progress that is Kaplan breaking through old formulations in order to see the world as it is.

Kaplan follows his old method in this book, looking past the standard map of the country to what is actually there and what the future is likely to be - namely the probable dissolution of our national boundaries as Canada breaks up and natural alliances across both Northern and Southern borders begin to take precedence. As for the division into states, he sees that as already outdated: our country now falls naturally into post-urban sprawls defined by drainage basins. Especially in the West, which is the focus of this book - because he thinks that is where we can see our future most clearly - Kaplan sees the federal government's domain shrinking to power over the vast federally owned lands but becoming less and less relevant in the centers of population. His journey takes us through suburban "pods" of prosperity that are insulated from the world around them. The growing gap between the prosperous and the deprived is a recurring theme in his book as he takes us back and forth between worlds, filling out the picture with particulars of place. My only complaint is that there is a scarcity of encounters with people in the prosperous pods, so that they become, in the course of the book, an impersonal force of complacency. We get into the trailer park, but less into the mansionette - so little that we have a far less visceral sense of this predominant reality.

But to quibble with a writer like this is really to miss the point. A work like this is not about perfection: it cannot be. Kaplan throws himself into the world as into a torrent, and then swims for his life trying to understand it.

Suzannah Lessard is the author of The Architect of Desire and
a contributing editor for
The Washington Monthly.


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