“Cultural Appropriation as an Attempt to Find Meaning and Escape Loneliness – A Grand Review of Noah Cicero’s Give it to the Grand Canyon” by Dale Brett

 

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To review Noah Cicero’s latest book, I went way back. Right back to the start. The Human War, The Condemned, Burning Babies… I wanted to see how far Noah had traveled. I wanted to see how far I had traveled. To re-visit those words that I eagerly consumed several years ago. When I heard there was a new Noah Cicero book coming out, I was crippled by a deep yearning to re-commence my viewing of Noah’s lifelong quest to show the beauty and pain of human existence through his words. With Noah, it always feels like hitting the play/pause button when I pick up his latest book, as if I am picking up where I left my favourite TV show, the honest voice warm and familiar. Give it to the Grand Canyon, his most recent offering published by the excellent A Philosophical Idiot, is no exception. 

Before critically engaging with Noah’s most recent text, as I said, let’s go back to the start. In The Human War, his first published book which came out in 2003, Noah writes: 

 

“Someday I will walk free again. 

I’ll walk in the desert of Arizona, smiling,

with a bottle of cold water.

I’ll laugh at these days… 

 

[I]’ll walk to the bottom of the Grand

Canyon. I’ll stand there like I’m in 

heaven. I’ll be strong and powerful

standing there with my feet in the

Colorado river.”  

 

More than a decade ago, when Noah the writer was still wallowing in suburban angst-ridden existentialism, he was already thinking about the themes central to his most recent novel. Fast-forward to the here and now and it is apparent that Noah is still obsessed by the mythical power of the Grand Canyon. He still believes it can take your pain away. He still writes about what it means to escape our reality and be at peace with what we have. Give it to the Grand Canyon is Noah’s magnum opus. His ‘full circle’ effort. A story of the protagonist’s, and one senses the author’s, journey across the globe that leads him back to where his adult life started, the Grand Canyon. A place where he first realised there was more to life than the mowed lawns and high school football games of his childhood in Ohio. 

“Culture in Ohio, was it even real? Men would mow the grass, the grass had to be mowed. The leaves fell in the fall, the men would rake the leaves and put them in piles in the backyard. Everyone had basements, some basements were made into extra living rooms, as in, rooms where people lived, watched television and played video games.” 

Noah’s works have always resonated with me. I have often felt an inherent, deep connection with his words when consumed by them. The scenes of his novels and poems have helped me learn to live in a white, middle class Western world knowing there are others that share my apprehension and anxiety. Like Noah, I also felt fundamentally lost growing up in a similar low to middle class suburb in a Western democracy where the local no-hope population was fixated on mortgages, marriage and making babies. Where the car wash and the flat screen television were considered true titans of culture. As Noah says in Give it to the Grand Canyon, he “couldn’t find a dream there” and neither could I. One displaced soul in the suburbs of the Anglofied northern hemisphere, one in the suburbs of the Anglofied southern hemisphere.  

Like Noah, I too escaped to live in Asia, an attempt to live more anonymously in a place where we could ‘opt out’ while still maintaining our self-esteem. A place where we could both test our nihilism, reduce external expectations and somewhat control our anxiety. As Noah writes: “In Korea they called me waeguk, in Arizona I became a bilagáana. At least I was something. In Ohio, I wasn’t anything but “that guy.” Replace the word ‘Ohio’ with ‘Victoria, Australia’ and that is pretty much how I felt growing up. Nothing more than “that guy.” 

Ever since finding Noah’s work at the height of the alt-lit boom whilst engaged in a creative writing minor at university, his words have always given me comfort that I am not the only one who feels entirely displaced by the consumer-culture of the West. His early works punctuated by existentialism and nihilism made me feel solidarity through our shared belief that the suburban dream of Western culture is not for everyone. His later works tinged with Buddhist and Navajo teachings made me feel hope that one can improve their seemingly incurable chronic depression by travel and learning from other cultures in an attempt to find yourself. Give it to the Grand Canyon maintains that motif of finding yourself through the lens of other cultures. Noah is here to tell you that even if you feel terribly alone at the top of this hopeless world, there are still people somewhere on earth to share this unbridled feeling with you. 

The journey of Give it to the Grand Canyon begins when a young man named Billy Cox crumbles and leaves everything in suburban Ohio behind to head out for the Grand Canyon, then California, then Portland, then Korea, then Cambodia, then back to the Grand Canyon. Anyone who is aware of Noah’s own private travels, both physical and mental, will obviously see the link between Billy Cox’s world and the author’s own in what could be considered a largely autobiographical text. After an absence of fifteen years, it is Billy Cox’s account of his second time living and working at the Grand Canyon that forms the bulk of this novel. 

Like most of Noah’s books, Give it to the Grand Canyon is a novel about cultural appropriation. Not the bad kind though. The kind where you don’t fit in very well with your own culture, and start to borrow learnings from other cultures, in an effort to find meaning in the world. Or perhaps just to feel a little less lonely. Reading Noah’s works over the years, I have always got the feeling that he is a writer that is striving to find beauty and meaning in a world where there often is none due to the banal, commodified culture we find ourselves in. Noah does this largely by exploring and interpreting other cultures in which he, and we in Western culture, can understand and make sense of other cultures. Buddhist, Taoist, Navajo and Hopi ideas are all prevalent in Give it to the Grand Canyon. These themes play on the mind of the protagonist and author consistently throughout. Though most white male writers of a ‘privileged’ background who attempt to explain the merits of other cultural beliefs fail, providing uncomfortable and insincere readings, Noah’s respectful and honest words merge differing cultures with his own heritage as a white, educated writer seamlessly. At no stage do you feel that Noah’s appropriation of these cultures into his thinking is disrespectful or negative. The reader accepts Noah’s presentation of these appropriations as necessary upgrades for a person who does not have the tools to function in modern society. Noah’s classic non-judgmental approach, which makes him such a relatable and likeable writer (and person), is fully on display here. 

Perhaps Noah’s message regarding cultural appropriation is most apt in a passage where the protagonist Billy Cox encounters a Haruki Murakami-infused artiodactyla apparition as his mind starts to blur deep into a hike to the heart of the Grand Canyon. In a nod to Herodotus, an image of a bighorn sheep manifests and makes a comparison between two happy men of disparate cultures in Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman statesman and philosopher, and Dazu Huike, the Second Patriarch of Zen. It is clear that these two figures represent the current mish-mash of Noah’s cultural legacy. 

Firstly, Marcus Tullius Cicero, bearing the same name as the author and representing the values of Noah’s Western childhood comprised of responsibility and conformity: 

“He believed in the beauty of each citizen, and how each citizen could contribute and make a strong commonwealth. He had a wife and children, he worked in society, he was a moral man. When the soldiers came to execute him, he didn’t complain, he didn’t plead for his life, he didn’t scorn the government for killing him even though he spent his whole life trying to make that government better.” 

Secondly, Dazu Huike, representing all Noah’s learnings and appropriations of culture that have contributed to his being and ‘career’ as a writer: 

“He had no wife, no children, he had no money and never had any power. He spent his life seeking and perfecting his enlightenment. And spent his later years spreading the dharma, not waging wars and getting into controversies.”

The message at the culmination of this vision for Billy Cox is that both these men, the one that represents responsibility and conformity and the one that represents revolution and virtue “knew how to live and how to die, one for society and one for enlightenment.” At this point, Billy Cox smiles. One gets the sense that Billy Cox, and by extension Noah Cicero, have come to terms that both genetic lineage and appropriation of other cultural values are equally important parts of us. That this is not a negative, but something unavoidable we must accept to live out our days in this hypercapitalist shitstorm without being drowned in chronic depression. 

Noah’s writing has also changed, and improved, since the aforementioned early works outlined at the beginning of this review. In Give it to the Grand Canyon, Noah’s previous anger and resentment regarding existence have been replaced with a calming, zen-like attitude. His musings less political now, his thoughts more passive and introspective as he matures to complete a full transition to bipolar cowboy. Noah has always been considered a minimalist writer, however, downloading mindful Buddhist, Taoist and Navajo teachings to his brain have resulted in even further refinement to his style and greater clarity of his prose, ridding the text of any unnecessary detritus. Only Noah himself would know if this distillation of content is a conscious or subconscious effort. 

Either way, throughout the novel, Noah’s words sparkle with lucidity. Each sentence and word crafted in the present – a precise passage for the reader to follow the signposts to the here and now. The magnified clarity and sparseness of Noah’s writing, and by extension Billy Cox’s actions, come across as an attempt to escape their collective past, to focus entirely on the present. Nowhere is this more apparent than a scene in which Noah describes a 4th of July party at the Grand Canyon’s infamous Victor Hall, where a native American tells a drunken story of his time during the Vietnam War where he recalls burning babies. There is an almost exact replica of this story in The Collected Works of Noah Cicero Vol. I, put out by the dearly missed Lazy Fascist Press. If you wish to see how far Noah’s writing has come, it is a rewarding experience to read these accounts of virtually the same story side-by-side. A void of fifteen years of loneliness, learning and acceptance squeezed in between. 

Ultimately, Give it to the Grand Canyon is a story of isolation, but also a story of intimacy. A story of people from various cultural backgrounds and demographics moving to a place they believe will make their pain go away. The pain of lost love, the pain of responsibility, the pain of waking up every day knowing you cannot meet expectations. Give it to the Grand Canyon is about trying to find yourself in an increasingly unfamiliar world. As Billy Cox says when he returns to the Grand Canyon for the first time since he was a teenager: “I knew the feeling of trying to adjust yourself, of trying to get the world aligned.” 

Billy Cox must appropriate culture to become unified with other ostracised misfits regardless of where they are from. The novel highlights the importance of finding people to relate to in a world where buying things is increasingly our only shared identity. Billy Cox, and the other characters in the novel, discover this realisation while living and working ordinary lives at the Grand Canyon. 

“We all knew why we were there, we didn’t have to worry anymore… [W]e’d saved up our money, we’d counted our pennies, we’d put things on credit cards that we shouldn’t have, and we’d taken long uncomfortable plane rides, but we got there, we got to the rim of the Grand Canyon.” 

Noah even takes the concept of cultural appropriation one step further, closer to something akin to ‘cultural unification’. In that virtually almost all culture is creeping closer and closer to an inevitable singularity of shopping malls, iPhones and skyscrapers regardless of ideology and geography. This is most evident in a passage between Billy Cox and Kaja, a beautiful Polish girl that he slowly builds a relationship with at the Canyon. 

“Kaja would say, “Everyone is same.” I would reply, “But there are cultural differences,” and she would reply, “Everyone is same.” She didn’t have a grand theory on why everyone was the same, as far as she would go was, “I’ve been to several countries, everyone is same.”

It is through these characters from various parts of the world that Billy Cox begins to comprehend that we are, indeed, all the same in this globalised world. That we all feel a little lonely. That we all feel a little anxiety. That we all stare into the terminal cultural abyss together as one. That we need to realise and accept all of the historical learnings from culture and travel that have been part of our existence – the good, the bad, the blissfully indifferent. 

As Noah says, the future of our culture is already inside of us, whether appropriated or whether inherited: “Kaja was young, naturally she still had naivety and innocence, but just like the young Taiwanese women, the young Filipino women, the young Jamaican women, and the young Navajo women, the future of her culture was inside them.”

Give it to the Grand Canyon lays bare the paradox that we are all different, but all alike. We have so many things we fixate on wanting to be, but we never desire to wake up and be ourselves. Like the characters in Give it to the Grand Canyon, like Noah Cicero, like Dale Brett, we need to learn to be ourselves, from all of our global learnings, from all of our travels. We need to learn how to let things go and be fine with them. 

To collectively declare there is no reason to exist and be okay with it. 

To achieve transcendence, you don’t need a meditation app. You don’t need to visit the Grand Canyon. You just need this latest novel from Noah Cicero. These words will help you learn to be okay with yourself.  

 

you can snag a copy of this beautiful book here!

 

Dale Brett is a writer and artist from Melbourne, Australia. 
He is interested in exploring the melancholic malaise and technological ennui of the 21st century. His work has been featured on Burning House Press, Surfaces.cx, Misery Tourism, Expat Press and Nu Lit Mag. Hypertextual artifacts found @_blackzodiac.

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