Topographies is a collection of essays by the American travel writer Stephen Benz. He takes us on journeys across North America, on a quest to unearth the culture and the history. This is not a “wish you were here” style of travel journalism: on occasion we are introduced to some bleak and unlovely places, and forced to confront some unwelcome truths about the past and the present.

Topographies cover image

Benz attempts to scratch beneath the carefully packaged surface to find the reality beneath. Sometimes the results are surprising, as when the elderly American couple he has stereotyped in his mind prove to have a less than conventional back story. In the same way he tries to uncover the past, to look beyond the stories in the history books. Whether it is Moldovans longing for a return to the Soviet era, or Americans clinging to the idea of past heroes, he tries to deconstruct the powerful mythology that nations build for themselves.

The first section of the book concentrates on the United States. I suspect that some of the cultural references were lost on me, but I liked the way the author looked beneath the apparent homogeneity of American culture to show the sheer variety of people, beliefs and attitudes. The writing is elegant, with the occasional startling metaphor. For example, Nevada’s casinos are described as being “like Mardi Gras on the catatonic ward: a party atmosphere without the human revelry”.

What I enjoyed most about Topographies was the contrast between the myth-making and the reality. The idyllic setting of the Everglades in Florida is set against the industrial pollution of the area, the human damage to the place. And in the essay entitled “Forever West” the author poses the question, what exactly is “The West” of the American imagination? He concludes that is it like a mirage, “suspended, floating, like a distant image on a desert highway”. For me, this was the core of this book, the way that we (and the tourist marketing agencies) try to create places and histories that don’t really exist.

Topographies by Stephen Benz is published by Etruscan Press, August 2019, 978-0998750897

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