The Perfect Culture by Brent Robins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
‘The Perfect Culture’ is an interesting romp through the travel adventures of a mid-western college-aged young man. Thomas feels disconnected from his peers, and also from his rural family roots. While he seems to have the impression that his inability to feel part of the group is due to his superior intelligence, it is apparent to the reader that his massive social awkwardness is the more likely culprit. One day he is struck by the concept of study abroad and international travel and finds himself quickly sucked into the potential of discovering others ‘like him’ in other places.
He eventually takes the reader along for the journey to three different countries and spends plenty of time describing the experiences of each. He seemed to be happiest in France, but perhaps that was more related to the food focus of the story which was significant (not that I’m complaining, I love food tourism!). There are some complexities of culture which are curious to read about. For example, the way in which his French friend tells him he hasn’t earned the right to have a romantic feeling toward France until he works harder for it. Or the insult that the Japanese man felt when he stuffed his business card in his pocket. He also finds the quarters in Israel interesting as well as the substantial Russian population.
I will, however, say that the insight into his mind is a complicated one. Yes, Thomas is intelligent and well-read, but much of his internal thought is only fascinating due to its odd nature and social inappropriateness. He misinterprets jokes and seriousness from others as often, at least, as he thinks they misunderstand him. After reading this I don’t consider it to be a humor based book. His joking is on the dark side of satire, preferring the mocking and caricature based. For example, he’s sitting near an orthodox Jew in Israel, wearing an old-style garb, and considers to himself that the man wouldn’t get his humor if he were to make a wizard joke.
All that said, I don’t really have an issue with his inappropriate internal thoughts, as we all have them. Nor do I feel it necessary to like the main character in order to enjoy a good travel story. While I do feel bad for his extreme social dysfunction, and the way he has so much difficulty in understanding how to communicate well with others, it does create some humorous situations in which he is completely misunderstood. I very much appreciated the descriptions of each place and found some interactions entertaining to read. The elements of food being brought in regularly made it great fun for me. Without question, I loved the French visit the most. The time spent in Japan felt dreary and depressive. The Israel trip was short, and a bit too saturated with political and religious criticism for my taste.