Reading Travels in the perfect setting of Hawaii made it all the more memorable. This is perhaps the least well-known work by the prolific and beloved Michael Crichton, and yet it served as my introduction to his work and writing. I also found it very fitting that my first reading of him was an autobiography, and with the life that Crichton led – always following his whims for adventure and thrill far above and beyond an average novelist – it brings me closer to understanding the man behind The Rising Sun, State of Fear, and Timeline.
Among these 4 books I later read by Crichton, I think his sense of humor is at its best and strongest in Travels. After all, it is perhaps easiest to laugh at our own life and experiences in hindsight.
It is easy to fall in love with Crichton’s writing. It immediately grasps you as solid writing. It is funny, easy, polished, gripping when it needs to be, authentic in both styles – fiction and memoir – and it stays with you long after the reading has ended. There is not a single excess word in all his writing; there is a purpose for every word, every phrase, and every chapter. You just know you are in the presence of great writing.
In the span of 353 page book, it is not until after the first 80 pages recounting the challenges of his medical days (1965-1969) that he begins to share his extensive travels. These first 80 pages offer many clues into Crichton’s shaping character and his priorities in pursuing his passions of writing and travel, despite the incurred cost and expended efforts on a career in medicine.
Crichton’s overall experience during medical school and especially his clinical rotations are disturbing, scary, gory, amusing and frequently daunting. It is the daunting that eventually leads him to quit medical school – the tough choices of bad or worse that a doctor has to make, the changes he observes in the doctors from human to robot for adaptation and survival in their environment, and the loose laws around malpractice which cost patients their lives or their limbs with hardly any punishment more than a slap on the wrist of the responsible doctor – these were the daunting observations that while tolerated and accepted at the time as the norm by his peers, Crichton was not able to live with. So he quit medicine.
His accounts of psychiatry are extremely funny. Crichton considered entering psychiatry when he was turning away from general medicine, but his clinical rotations proved his assumptions true – at least for him – that psychiatry does not really help people. There are two groups who dominate the clientèle in Crichton’s view: those who are severely disturbed and need help, for whom psychiatry does not make do much and certainly does not effect cures, and those who make up the self-indulgent, absurdly wealthy crowd for whom psychiatry is a glorified form of treatment and he had no interest to help them.
Funny enough, he goes to see a psychiatrist a few years later at the suggestion of his then wife for problems he considered amusing in medical school.
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
And this brings me to what Crichton does best in this book – and something that I found outright hilarious: He would form an opinion about a subject and act in accordance with that opinion, until someone suggests the opposite view, which, through long analytical monologues, disturbs him to the point that he switches to the opposite end of the opinion spectrum, and adjusts all his actions accordingly. Perhaps, on significant issues this would seem like a person who does not believe in anything, and therefore falls for anything – but these were all petty affairs, such as visiting a psychiatrist – whom he finds to be a waste of time – until his friend tells him that the guy probably would not make time to see him anyway – leading Crichton to panic that perhaps his case is not interesting or important, and he makes an appointment right away!!!
Bangkok. Bonaire. Pahang. An elephant attacking. Fabulous tale of climbing Kilimanjaro. His vast exposure to psychics. The Shangri-La. The sharks. An Extinct Turtle. And so on and on. The chapter heading in Travels reads nothing short of fiction with a very busy protagonist. I like that Crichton did not allow the petty affairs of life to get in the way of his travels, a desire that was building up in his medical school years, and one that he fulfilled with an admirable intensity for the course of 15 years (1971-1986). During this time, he produced some of his greatest fiction and worked as film director and screen writing in between his travels and his writing.
The Kilimanjaro chapter:
” “The odds are seven to one against”, the courier said.
“Against what?”, I said. “Against your making it to the top of Kilimanjaro.
I pulled the men, and they are seven to one you’ll never make it.” “
They lose the bet. Crichton makes it to the top and back, but comes very close to losing a few toes and fingers, and on a couple of occasions, nearly his life.
The undertaking of Kilimanjaro turns out to be far more than Crichton bargained for. It seems that this experience continues to feed him for many years to come – he remembers the extreme torture and pain, the intense desire to give-up, the harsh conditions that only became harsher as the trek continued, making him wish for the earlier conditions he had mistakenly considered impossible to bear. How deep and complex is the human spirit in the face of extremity that it chooses to face?
Crichton explores every layer. He whines, he cries, he falls behind his girlfriend who proves to be stronger and tougher, but he endures. He endures it all, the freezing cold, the blocks of ice he felt his feet had turned into, the absolute darkness as the wind blows out the lanterns during the 2am treks up the mountain, the dizziness from altitude, the exhaustion. After all this, at the summit of this magnificent mountain, he feels nothing. He had expected to feel so much, to be swimming in elation and excitement and relief. The mountains had changed him in a strange way. Being in the summit felt less like a feat, more like the void – the absence of all human joy and spirit bottled up inside the climber.
Years later, he realizes how narrowly he had defined himself before Kilimanjaro, and how false the mountain had proven Crichton to be. He started to expand his horizons and do the things he did not think he could do or would like. He starts to shape his new adventures with this perspective.
The chapter dearest to my heart is on his experience with the Mountain Gorillas. The dialogue between the scientist and Crichton before his journey up the mountains to see the gorillas:
“I wouldn’t study gorillas”, Nicole said.
“Why not”, I asked.
“They are men.”
“Gorillas are men?”
“Yes, of course”.
Gorillas are not animals, they are same as men. The Gorilla story is chilling, sad, beautiful and more. As Crichton comes to see these gorillas close-up, he “drifted into a feeling of extraordinary enchantment. Never in my life had I experienced anything like it. To be so close to a wild creature of another species, and yet to feel no threat…I never wanted to leave.”
In a relaxed setting, Crichton explains how gorillas seemed similar to us and while they did not seem like human beings, he had a sense that they all understood one another. He felt an innate sense of belonging in their presence, and his observations are bitterly sad – sad for one because the Mountain Gorillas are becoming extinct. Crichton dreams about that encounter often after leaving them.
Now every time I visit the zoo, I do not leave without seeing the gorillas. I long to experience what Crichton felt during his visit, but one thing is for sure – it is never difficult to feel the aura of sadness around these creatures.
In the Direct Experience chapter, Crichton explains the importance of gaining making our own direct experience with life. Traveling is a central enabler for that, one which he explored extensively throughout his life. Beyond travel, he experiences on other levels such as channeling, psychic phenomena, energies of bodies. At one point, when he realizes how far away he has moved from the rational, intellectual traditional world of medicine and science, in the course of his experiences, he summarizes his beliefs in this chapter, leaving the door wide open for our own interpretation.
Crichton’s parting thought shares the beginning of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke
“Whoever you are: some evening take a step
out of your house, which you know so well.
Enormous space is near … “