Door closed, his world opens

Times Staff Writer

Pico Iyer's neighbors in the quiet suburb of Kyoto, Japan, call him "Isoro," which means parasite. This is because he is the only grown man in the neighborhood who doesn't get up and go out to work to support the family. John Cheever, the story goes, had a similar problem on the other side of the world. He used to leave his Manhattan apartment in suit and hat, ride down the elevator with the other dads and then go to the basement, where he wrote all day in a storage area.


Iyer, who is a pretty productive parasite, has written seven books in his 44 years (including the latest, his second novel, "Abandon"), has been named one of the 100 writers "who could change your life" (by Utne Reader in 1995) and has written for Time magazine since 1982 (from book reviews to profiles of such figures as Corazon Aquino, to coverage of the Olympics). He is most often called a travel writer, but if Iyer is only a travel writer then so was Henry James. His books are almost always about the clash between the Old World and the New World, Buddhism and McDonald's, Islam and California.

"Abandon" (Knopf) is a love story, but then again, so is much of his travel writing. In it, a young scholar in Santa Barbara struggles to complete his dissertation on the Sufi poet Rumi. John Macmillan is a fairly uptight, isolated guy from England who gets involved in a mysterious search for ancient Islamic texts that takes him from Damascus to South-Central L.A. But his inner travels dominate the story.

A needy, helpless, frightened young woman named Camilla attaches herself to him, apologizing profusely all the while, cringing in the face of inevitable rejection. Camilla is terrified of being abandoned. John has got to let go and abandon himself if he is to get anywhere in his understanding of Rumi. John finds himself trying to navigate the Byzantine labyrinths of Islamic scholars, aging poets who speak in riddles, professors hiding texts and the popularized Rumi versus the deeper interpretations.

"Rumi's spiritual Q-rating is second only to the Dalai Lama's," Iyer assures. "I heard Donna Karan has Rumi's poems read on the runway at her fashion shows."

There's another dimension to the novel: The new world of California, with all its facile spirituality and instant intimacy versus the stodgy, repressed but ever-polite world of England, specifically, Oxford.

Which, it turns out, is where Iyer grew up, the son of Indian parents, in the caldron, the heart, the bosom of England. This you can tell because he is polite and neat and quick and sociable. He is Indian. This you can also tell because he is polite and neat and quick and sociable. But more than sociable. Engaged. Warm. He is listening to you even when he is talking to you. Even if you sit absolutely still in the fading afternoon light of Santa Barbara mid-winter, next to a fire on plush chairs in a gorgeous hotel. Even if you barely move in two hours, you feel like you've been somewhere. Planet Iyer. The world.

On this day, Iyer has Gwyneth Paltrow on the brain. She's just inspired a friend's novel and she's inspiring Iyer's next novel. Her fragility and transparency seem very Californian to him. "I've been 35 years on and off here, and those horizons never get closer," he says. "The poignancy of California gets me, so bereft of tradition and history, its sweetness and innocence, no culture to hold you up, no safety net. In Japan, if someone is frightened they go to their mother or grandmother. In California, people don't know where to go. There is so much fear, especially in the women. Everyone talks about their abandonment in California, the Republic of the Self. Most people think of it as a place of abandon, but there are more fettered people here than anywhere else."

He's surprised to have included so much of California in this book, as he wrote it in his two-room house in Japan, which he shares with his partner and her two children. He has no car, no bicycle, no fax. He doesn't really speak Japanese and so doesn't get much news of the outside world, and that's just fine with him because the outside world has been his backyard play area since he was a child.

A life in order

Iyer's education took place in schools that could have been the models for the Harry Potter books. First the Squirrel School in Oxford for young boys, then the Dragon School, a boarding school where Iyer was "incarcerated," sleeping 10 to a room, playing competitive games that made Quidditch look like tiddlywinks, "training for the Empire. Except at the end of it all, there was no more Empire."

His parents moved to Santa Barbara when he was 13, but Iyer remained in school in England ("Suddenly, my nearest relative was 6,000 miles away"), coming to California for vacations. "You couldn't experience two more different worlds," he says. "Everything good there was bad here and vice-versa." Iyer went to Eton, then to Magdalen College at Oxford and then on to graduate school at Harvard studying English lit.

Four times each year, Iyer heads for the hills to shed his self in a Benedictine monastery in Northern California. "The minute I get out of the car, my head stops spinning. I forget everything in that protected space and in the absolute silence. When I leave, it lasts for three to five days and then the peace is gone."

Iyer refers often to Philip Roth's essays on writing. "My friends make fun of me for being controlling in my habits, but like Roth, I must have order around me when I write." He no longer accepts travel writing assignments. "Fiction allows me to sit still. And there's an excitement that comes from not knowing what's going to come next." Like Roth, Iyer finds that each book leaves something unsaid and unfinished that provides the impulse for the next book.

His last book, "The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home," was set mainly at LAX. It was about the impersonal surfaces of our lives.

Iyer wanted his next book to be about warmth and possibility. He wanted Camilla and John to have a catalytic effect on each other -- through their relationship to fill in some of their own missing pieces. The response, so far (the book is out tomorrow) has been good, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

His next novel will be set again in California, but he will try to write it in a woman's voice, perhaps, say, Gwyneth Paltrow's. But she will be English. Perhaps Kristin Scott Thomas? It will be "more psychological" than "Abandon," he says.

As a global traveler, does he think about the possibility of war? "I suppose I belong to that enchanted generation that never had to witness war firsthand. But for me this conflict between Islam and the U.S., between old and new, has been going on forever. Most places I go to have been living with terrorism for centuries. My sense of the world has not changed since Sept. 11th." He is sympathetic to the traditional societies and to old cultures. "I guess," he admits, "I am most interested in the things that don't change."

Living in Japan, he finds himself deeply involved in the past. "I chose to live there, though I am not a Buddhist, because I have such respect for their attentiveness and egolessness. I understand the 'richness of reticence' -- that reticence helps you to develop your inner life."

He offers an example. "Say my partner, in cleaning her 16-year-old son's room, comes across some dirty magazines. She simply takes them and throws them out, without saying a word to him. He comes home, sees they are gone, feels embarrassed and there is no conflict. In 20 years in that house, I have never heard raised voices."

The author, surprisingly, is also grateful for his boarding school education. "I learned self-discipline. I can write five pieces in a week while writing a novel without whining about it. In many ways, I have a better relationship with my parents because my adolescence was left to professional sadists to manage. I didn't have to go through all that with them. After living side by side with 250 boys, literally eating next to the same boy for four years, I am comfortable being alone. I can amuse myself."

Iyer also feels that his trial by fire in school made him stronger. "Fourteen-year-old boys will find your weakness and run with it. You don't expect the world to do you any favors. I don't require validation for everything I do. If I did, the nickname Isoro might hurt my feelings."

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