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MOTEL NIRVANA by Melanie McGrath


Dreaming of the New Age in the American Desert

by Melanie McGrath

Pub Date: May 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-312-14372-9
Publisher: Picador

 An Englishwoman's amused yet sympathetic journey through the New Age culture of the American West. McGrath travels through New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado on a kind of cynic's pilgrimage, to learn about New Age spirituality. On her journey she meets a wide cross-section of the walking wounded: people with remembered past lives, psychics, princesses from lost subterranean cities, damaged inner children, people ``working on themselves.'' Her account makes a fine contribution to the tradition of witty foreign commentary on US culture, and her approach to New Age spirituality--skeptical, with an eye for the hilarious and absurd--is thoroughly entertaining. Some of what she describes is devastating; in a chapter on the New Age appropriation of Native American culture, for instance, McGrath quotes one of her white seekers as saying that the Indians who are addicted to alcohol and gambling aren't really Indians: They're ``reincarnations of 19th-century white men, paying back bad karma. . . . Real Indians are spiritually pure.'' McGrath is a rare phenomenon: a European who can report on American racism and commercial excess without sounding self-righteous. It is not until the final chapter that we learn the extent of her own spiritual despair: that she has been depressed and suicidal throughout her adult life, looking for solace in various kinds of therapy and drugs. This section adds a self-reflectiveness and empathy to her story, making it clear that she identifies with people who are seeking meaning in their lives and that, in some ways, what brought her to the Southwest was not so far from what draws the New Agers. McGrath achieves a balance between mockery and understanding that is rare among commentators on contemporary spirituality.