BOOKS : With a starman in the attic

MOTEL NIRVANA: Dreaming of the New Age in the American Desert by Melanie McGrath, HarperCollins pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
"TELL ME, did we meet in a past life?" they asked her, or "Are you an extraterrestrial, dear?"

The New Agers picked the right woman for their batty small-talk. Melanie McGrath was seriously out to lunch. She stuck her fingers into a lamp socket. She ran through therapists like teabags. Then an article stating that more Americans believe in ESP than Hell, and that more of them are abducted by aliens than see the Virgin Mary, sent her flying from England to Texas. Here she bought a banger and motored around the ley lines of loopiness leading to the West Coast. It is like Jack Kerouac's On the Road but with laughs.

Surrounded by the inmates of that vast asylum, the south-western States of the USA, she recovered her sanity - unlike a fellow lodger at a house where she stayed, who declared herself to be an angel with malfunctioning wings and who lived chiefly on ice cream. Other lodgers included a fellow who was a reincarnation not only of Napoleon but also of Merlin; the landlady's husband had been replaced by a "star man" who flew away.

Then there was the 267-year-old lady ambassador from the underground city of Telos, not to be confused with the woman who warned of the forthcoming

invasion of the Reptiles from the Constellation of Orion (think Jurassic Park). Slightly more sober was the theory that American Indians are descendants of the lost tribe of the sunken land of Atlantis; the letters "atl" appear in Indian placenames, you see.

Some of the laughs she creates herself. She buys a book of "Insight" cards, each containing a profound slogan, and takes them back to the shop: "I thought they'd be deeper." She attends a conference of "immortals", that is, dumbos from whom considerable sums have been extracted on the promise that they will outlive the Universe. She checks into therapeutic madhouses: "I've survived an epidemic of loving environments." From her encounters she produces the most hilarious of dialogue. I have some doubts about the reliability of her aural memory, however, partly because of her diet of sleeping tablets, partly because the sole rationalist with whom she converses - her cynical New York friend Fergus - turns out at the end to be an imaginary playfellow. But she is more charitable towards her New Agers than her droll researches might suggest.

Like her, the folk she encounters are worried about bleak rationalism. But she knows when she is going over the top, for instance in the phobia of triangles which she develops at one point. By contrast, the woman who is convinced that aliens of World Government are landing at the local sports club really does believe that little green men are calling the shots at the United Nations - or wherever it is that shots are called.

"The New Age beliefs that sustained them were so radically at odds with their own experience that they had constantly to reinvent their experience," says Ms McGrath. Equally perceptively, she remarks: "New Age is the consumer culture's answer to spirituality." And the Nirvana - union with the godhead - that they seek is, she feels, on the boring side anyway.

She does not want to be totally dismissive, and she is right. There is a danger in throwing all Alternative babies out with the New Age bathwater. The wackiest of beliefs, such as the roundness of the earth or the effectiveness of osteopathy, can become scientifically verified fact. And if we are not New Agers, what does that make us? Middle Agers? Or even Old Agers?

I would quibble with her comparisons between these cults and the Puritans; I would also quibble with her punctuation, which has clearly been provided by a Martian on Ecstasy. The layout of the jacket design falls to bits as you look at it; that may be the point, but it's still a coyote's dinner.

Finally, if you buy this book under the impression that it covers the holiday arrangements of Kurt Cobain, you have been fooled - as have many of the characters wandering about inside its entertaining pages.

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