On the lonely road to Angkor, 1989. James James (second from left), flanked by his military escort.
Jamie James's theme in The Glamour of Strangeness is the personality type he calls the "exote." No English dictionary known to my search engine seems to recognize the term, but that would be part of the charm: James's exotes are people who run away to discover who they are and where they belong.T. E. Lawrence, a.k.a Lawrence of Arabia, who flits by very late in the game, gives the book its title: "Pray God that men reading the story will not, for love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute their talents in serving another race." Ultimately, Lawrence warns, the charade will hollow out the authenticity of the lover and the beloved.
Of the six principal specimens James examines under his electron microscope, you will have heard of the first, Paul Gauguin, Post-Impressionist South Sea Islander by way of Paris, France. How about the phony Javanese prince Raden Saleh, who painted tiger hunts of Asia in the style of the Salon? Or Walter Spies, who learned everything there was to know about the Balinese gamelan, court dances, flora, and fauna? Or Victor Segalen, novelist of preliterate Tahiti? Or Isabelle Ehrhardt, who haunted Northwest Africa disguised as a lone male Arab? Or the perpetually impecunious red-headed film-making voodoo priestess Maya Deren, of Haiti and Greenwich Village?
Generous individual chapters are devoted to each artist, writer, and scholar in this intercontinental motley crew. The circles these misfits moved in were scintillating, sulfurous, sometimes both. On his guard against "diaphanous logic," James seldom forces a parallel but rather unravels the histories of his quirky, frequently scandalous all-stars with clinical detachment, judging their creative endeavors in much the same way. For the record, none came to a good end.
At a time when such destinations were much further away and virtually unreachable, James saw Machu Picchu, Angkor Vat, the Taj Mahal ("of course"), and God knows what other monuments. He's not easy to impress. I remember from his early days as a globe-trotting cultural journalist (one whom I had frequent occasion to edit, in the magazine Connoisseur of fond memory), that he always distinguished himself by exquisite subtlety of telling observation, conveyed in a tone I would have to call blasé. He never got excited. His stylish silken yarns might seem spun of nothing, constantly threatening to fray in your hand, yet somehow they held you spellbound.
And thus with this book—his fifth volume of out-of-the-box nonfiction and his best yet. The narrative method is digressive, the supporting cast beyond number, the crisscrossing cross references dizzying, and the upshot inconclusive. But try to put it down. James's sly wisdom keeps you going.
Raised in suburban Houston, now settled in Lombok (his refuge across the water when nearby Bali went to the dogs), James knows a thing or two about what he calls in a postscript "an arc that rises in rapture and gradually decays into disillusionment." In his introduction ("An Invitation"), his coda ("The Last Age of Exoticism"), and here and there along the way, he shares memories that give off a frisson. I think of Munny, the headwaiter at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor in the days when you needed a military escort to go there, studying the face of George Washington on a fresh dollar bill. "This is your king?," he asked. "He looks like a lady." No, Jamie wasn't in Texas any more.
In our age of global sometimes accursed connectedness, such an encounter may be hard to imagine. But is the quintessential human experience of what has been called the Other really foreclosed now, as James's subtitle—Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic—would suggest? The author's life story, hinted at between these covers but perhaps to be told more fully by someone else a century hence, suggests otherwise.