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Review of Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands, and Our Search for New Utopias

By By Alastair Bonnett

University of Chicago Press, 2017

304 pages, $25, hardcover.

ISBN: 978-0-226-51384-3

Review by: Nat Case, INCase, LLC

Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands, and Our Search for New Utopias

Beyond the Map is a collection of thirty-nine essays about places, regions, and geographic features, all in some way disputed, abandoned, transient, or otherwise resistant to “mappedness,” though, disappointingly, maps themselves are not really discussed in the book. The chapters are grouped into five broad themes: “Unruly Islands,” “Enclaves and Uncertain Nations,” “Utopian Places,” “Ghostly Places,” and “Hidden Places,” each of which is (broadly) self-explanatory. At the ostensible heart of the book is the vision of a centrifugal “new era of geographic giddiness” and fragmentation—a scenario wherein the author sees the old sensible order of the world unraveling in the new millennium. This central idea, however, does not provide a strong guiding principle for the book. Instead it’s pervaded with a kind of exoticism, the sort that also runs through much of online site Atlas Obscura (atlasobscura.com). It is an updated, more socially conscious, and in this case somewhat weary spin on, Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Bonnett covers some fascinating corners of the world—often through personal narratives. Many of the best locations are in his native Britain, but his narration gives a strong English tilt to even the non-British places. The submerged landscape of Doggerland—in what is now the North Sea—is well imagined, as are the ghostly remnants of Boys Town—a summer holiday camp for Welsh miners’ children. The book’s main interest lies in the episodes themselves, in the meat of description, rather than any analysis or framing. Beyond the Map is a highbrow entry in the genre that includes Atlas Obscura, Ripley’s, and the hordes of other, more pedestrian productions one sees, with titles such as Mysterious Atlanta, Lost Nauru, Haunted Cambridgeshire, and so on (I made up all three of those). It’s a fascinating and entertaining corner of geographic literature, but this example is spoiled by the author’s attempt to dignify it with framing and theory.

What is missing is a convincing depth. Bonnett’s own self-effacing personal reflections, even at their best, lack the poetic interest and evocation of better travel and place writers. He frequently refers to a spiraling apart of an old order, but does little to trace that spiraling, even in chapters on ISIL or the Ferghana Valley—a place where the roots of fragmentation are deep and rich. The Ferghana chapter is annoyingly superficial, as he hardly glances at the early Soviet history of the “-stans”—with their mix of Pan-Turkism, ethnic rivalry, and scheming alliances with Stalin’s gangster-like organizers—and instead looks only one level deep. Bonnett writes of the effects of ill-defined Soviet border-making on a landscape facing climate change and human crowding, and then leaves it there.

Perhaps most telling is his chapter on underground Jerusalem—another place where controversies about history lie buried layer upon layer, underlying and feeding into intractable modern conflicts. Bonnett’s best stab at evoking all this is to drift into an account of drinking and wandering about while attending a conference there some years ago. Maybe in other hands this anecdote might have revealed something profound or engaging, but here it neither illuminates the deep-rooted conflict nor makes interesting the writer’s personal experience.

Any one of the five sections could, if expanded and fleshed out with some genuinely new and insightful comment, have itself made a deeper and more interesting book. In the end, though, Beyond the Map seems more a scattered travelogue or a patched-together collection of blog posts than a focused book. Most of the individual chapters aim at subjects of real interest and many reflect the honest point of view of a geographer who finds himself at a loss to explain or find meaning in his explorations. The problem is, this lack of meaning carries through into the whole itself, and left me with the sense that most of what I took away from the book was mere trivia.