by: Michael Shields
A “review” of a novel that doubles as a visceral, eye-opening experience…
Chris Campanioni’s most recent novel, Tourist Trap (Or: How I Paid My Way Through Grad School), is bookended by a singular thought, a question: can we ever start anew? Invoking a kindred premise to the alt-rock act Wilco and their outstanding “Ashes of American Flags” in which they lament, “All my lies are always wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new,” Tourist Trap doesn’t simply bemoan the passage of time and the concessions that persist in the journey towards understanding, but also expounds upon how this desire to start over can manifest in finding a way to truly live. Because in order to break free from the systems that conjure complacency, we must be aware of them, and desire refinement. And this is Tourist Trap, a jaunt into the psyche of a contemporary man, befuddled by the changing times and the obviousness of the delinquency abounding.
Part comedy, part thriller, and part horror story, Tourist Trap is the third book in what Campanioni refers to as an out of order trilogy that has been re-arranged. The first book is the yet to be released, Fashion of the Seasons (King Shot Press, 2016), while its “follow-up” is 2013’s Going Down. In whole, this trilogy acts in the way of most of Chris’s writing, as an amplified snapshot of a time and a place, and Tourist Trap delicately captures the tactility and aura of the age of flip-phones through to the dawn of the internet where we were given the broad platform to crassly make fun of such expeditiously outdated technology. Tourist Trap commences in 2006 and works its way patiently towards the following year, while readers are swept off to exotic locales such as the south of France, Egypt and Thailand, and ushered into a world – our world – where materialism, consumption, and narcissism have run rampant.
Chris Campanioni, through the voices of the characters in the novel, speaks with the introspection of a narrated noir film; a detective, of life itself, narrating his findings with profound contemplation and touting the journey toward far-reaching awareness. These thoughtful moments of insight are scattered about the novel like buried chunks of treasure, unearthed on nearly every turn of the page. What’s unique about Tourist Trap is that each chapter could be enjoyed and analyzed on its own, an entirely succinct novel that can be digested piecemeal as there is power and poignancy in each passing section. But, like a great album, its beauty is best exposed in whole, when the larger picture comes into focus, where “cultural terrorism and terrorism are one in the same.”
Tourist Trap takes readers on a journey around the globe, and while that jaunt is indeed rewarding, it is the more personal moments found in all directions that linger. In a chapter titled, “Cost of Living,” readers are confronted with the decadence and demands of New York City, but also with it opportunity, a place that offers you the ability to lose yourself, and herein lies the fortuity, as losing oneself is “the first act through which we might find something greater. Losing it, giving it up.” And Tourist Trap is noble in its efforts to somehow find a way to hear what matters through all the noise, to see what’s important through the non-stop media attack on our senses. And to come to grips with what it means to be a human being at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Undoubtedly, the chapter that affected me the deepest is titled, “Something Catchy,” one which opens with a discussion about a human’s waning moments in life. Where while perched on death’s doorstep, “every passing moment is not more delicate than all the rest.” Where “you do not appreciate life more. Instead you hate everything about it.” And it is this realism blanketed in pessimism that only helps intensify the myriad of messages present in Tourist Trap. Because the numbness that so many of us feel in a world so full of the promise of sensation is the enduring hoax of modern life. A world where we are all too often forced from that one place that means the most – this very moment. “It’s such a horrible condition, isn’t it?” we are offered later in the chapter. “To be always thinking. To always be in one place with your mind in another.”
While constant stimuli and distractions come under the gun in Tourist Trap, an unlikely but notable threat comes to the forefront: boredom. Through the analyzation of the motives of nefarious terrorists and also civilians just trying to make their way in the world, searching for a measure of meaning, Campanioni suggests that possibly apathy and idle hands (“the bombs and the boredom”) are gravely responsible for so many of the ills in the world. That a sort of privileged despair is underlying far too much hurt, and that in an effort to craft a life out of the pallet of existence, and under the newfound demand of making that life consequential, attractive, and celebrated, clouded decisions are made that are self-centered and unrighteous. In the west, abundance and the comfort of the modern age have birthed the idea of “free time,” and with that a choice of how to fill in this newfound blank space. Unfortunately, far too few decisions are made with the greater good in mind.
Tourist Trap is the story of today, of a lifestyle born of the internet and the loss of physical “touch” that it is responsible for. But in this way, Tourist Trap is a call to action. Campanioni designed the tales within Tourist Trap for “maximum contact,” and ultimately offers up the idea that human connectivity is of the utmost importance. He even goes so far to say in the Artist’s Statement which concludes the novel that “phatic communication is the only revolutionary act.” In a world where so many ask so often, what can I do? – all too often the answer is as close as the person standing next to you.
Tourist Trap ultimately serves as an expose on the industries of culture, and the perversion of politics that threatens to divide us all on a very personal level. But Tourist Trap manages to do something astonishing within all the scathing commentary it offers – it hints that there is still time to change if we can, somehow, find a way to start anew.