Sometimes writers become so close to their subjects that they lose the ability to see the big picture. When a journalist works too closely with a source, that journalist can unconsciously adopt the source’s world view, attitudes, and values, mistaking the source’s perspective for objective reality. This bias then colors the resulting work. In his new book The Lost City of the Monkey God (Grand Central Publishing, 2017), journalist and novelist Douglas Preston accidentally produced a chronicle of the development of his own blind spot as he comes increasingly to identify with the researchers who traveled to Honduras in search of the legendary White City, known at times as the City of the Monkey God.
Douglas Preston has written for a number of high-end magazines, and he is the author of a number of nonfiction books I have never read and author or coauthor of novels I have never heard of. From what I gather, at one point George Clooney was going to play Preston in a movie version of one of his investigations. I know of his work only what I have read in Lost City of the Monkey God and the New Yorker and National Geographic articles that he assembled as the backbone of the book.
Early reviews of Lost City have been quite positive, with Booklist calling it “captivating” and Kirkus declaring it “another winner.” I had the exact opposite impression, and I imagine that it is because I wrongly assumed that the book would have something of a connection to its title. It does not. I found myself flipping from page to page wondering when the author would get back to the title tale and stop talking about himself. The answer is that he does not.
Let’s state this up front: This is not a book about the Lost City of the Monkey God. It is not a book about the White City. It is not really even a book about archaeology. To my mind, it is a “book” mostly in the technical sense that it has a large number of uneven chapters fronted by a table of contents and backed by a useless list of sources unlinked to specific facts within the book. In terms of its content, however, it is not an analysis of the legend of the White City, a carefully researched account of Honduran archaeology, or even much of an adventure tale. This is instead a bit of a bait-and-switch. Preston lures the reader in with the promise that he will describe the discovery of the White City, but he then delivers an endless account of the hardship of trekking through the Honduran rainforest, some upset ranting about how the expedition’s critics are all jealous and bitter, and a final third of the book devoted to more detail than I ever cared to know about the leishmaniasis, the dangerous protozoan infection Preston acquired in Honduras.
Like most nonfiction books crafted in part from recycled material, the formula used to build the book is unartfully exposed: An idea is introduced, a personal anecdote is presented, and this is followed by an even longer info-dump before abruptly changing topic. It is inelegant. According to media accounts, Preston started revising his previous work into this book in October 2015, as soon as he had published his National Geographic article on the subject, and the book was complete in early 2016.
Preston’s involvement with the search for the White City goes back nearly twenty years, from when he first reported on the story for the New Yorker. Well, no, that’s not entirely true. What’s more correct is to say that Preston met filmmaker Steve Elkin in the 1990s and was seduced by his claims to have found the White City and thus spent twenty years in thrall to Elkin’s particular brand of macho bravado and derring-do. In the intervening decades, Preston has written about the White City for the New Yorker and for National Geographic, and he traveled with Elkin and his explorers hunting for the city on multiple occasions, particularly after Elkin claimed that the remote sensing technique known as LIDAR has revealed the outlines of a previously unknown city in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. He was present when the researchers found a cache of artifacts, and he was there trading stories with members of the Honduran president’s entourage when the president visited the site to promote its archaeological significance to Honduras. For his efforts, Preston contracted a stomach-turning tropical disease, along with other members of the expedition, and the men developed deep and lasting bonds that they maintain down to the present.
While this might have made for a fine profile of an expedition into the unknown, Preston has one huge blind spot that prevents him from telling a logical story. That blind spot is his unwillingness to deal with the myth of the White City and its consequences.
I have dealt with this myth before, but the long and short of it is that that the story of the White City is a modern invention that cannot be traced back before Eduard Conzemius recorded in 1927 that around 1905 or 1910 a rubber trapper made a report of a gigantic city, with buildings of white marble surrounded by a large white marble wall. “All the Indians say that they do not know of it and that it is all a myth,” Conzemius said. But in the late 1930s Theodore Morde claimed to find a “City of the Monkey God,” and this fiction became folded into the White City story, which in turn claimed as ancestor Hernán Cortés’s claim in the 1500s that there were reports of wealthy settlements in the Mosquitia region. In other words, the modern story is a fabrication.
Preston knows this, at least on one level. He admits partway through the book that the White City legend is not literally true. But he still wants to be able to use it at will, for sensationalism and to give his account a pulp flavor of fun and adventure that the facts alone might not support, particularly since so little actual work has been done at the site that it is unclear whether the place that Elkin’s team scanned is actually a city. Nevertheless, Preston simply chooses not to engage with the falseness of the legend. At one point, he specifically claims that the legend goes back to the Spanish Conquest—even though Cortés mentioned no ruins, no white walls, and no monkey god—and argues that legends are based on facts, so even though the story is false, the existence of any city in Mosquitia proves that the legend is based on truth. (He does so because Elkin’s team, by his own account, only researched documents “back almost a century,” and thus missed the lack of White City references prior to 1927.) The argument is circular, but it speaks to his need to justify the entire expedition with an appeal to a modern fiction. The appeal is coy: This isn’t the White City, Preston says, but the White City may have been based on whatever it is that he and his group found, so in essence it really is the White City after all. You can have your cake and eat it, too.
Even this would be forgivable if Preston did not want to use the fake legend as a cudgel to dismiss critics of Elkin’s expedition. Since the announcement that artifacts had been found, a number of academics and activists have vigorously protested the use of the White City label for a variety of reasons. Preston takes personally their criticism, for what I can only assume is his own identification with Elkin’s expedition and his feeling that he is part of the team being attacked. “I feel as though we’re on trial,” he quotes one expedition member, Alicia González, as saying. “How dare they?” In a fairly telling chapter, Preston devotes space to settle grudges with critics, attempting to humiliate archaeologist John Hoopes for a mistake in a Facebook posting on the topic, a remarkably petty use of space in a book, particularly since the author interviewed Hoopes and used him as an expert on the archaeology of Central America “despite being a critic of the project.” (Disclosure: I know Hoopes and have discussed the White City with him on multiple occasions.) Preston devotes space to defending Elkin’s team (and thus himself) from charges that applying a largely Euro-American myth to a genuine Native site has colonialist overtones, and he does so by essentially arguing that Hondurans believe the White City myth (and have since the 1960s), so if the myth is “true” in the sense given above, there can be no colonialism involved in applying it to the site.
Preston’s blind spot can be exemplified in a telling irony: Preston complains that critics were “concerned about language that felt like a throwback to the bad old colonialist, Indiana Jones days of archaeology.” But he fails to notice that he introduces into evidence Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, as a celebrity supporter! In April Ford praised the site as an “extraordinary, globally significant ecological and cultural treasure.” What, pray tell, is the point of entering Harrison Ford in the ledger on your side if not to evoke the very Indiana Jones aura that with tepid lip service you condemn?
Here are Preston’s unvarnished views on colonialism, as given in his own book:
While I agree with most of this argument [about colonialism in archaeology] and am delighted that modern archaeological vocabulary is increasingly nuanced and sensitive, it poses a challenge for those of us writing about archaeology for a lay audience, since it is nearly impossible to find work-arounds for common worlds like “lost” and “civilization” and “discovery” without typing the English language up into knots. […] Archaeologists today don’t like the word “civilization” because it implies superiority, preferring the term “culture.” I will, however, continue to use the word “civilization” with the understanding that no such value judgement is meant; it is merely a term for a culture that is complex and widespread.
Is it so hard not to write of the “discovery of a lost civilization”? How about: “Archaeologists scanned a previously unmapped abandoned city, buried for at least 500 years.” I know. That was really hard. Language is always a choice, and Preston consistently chooses the language of Boy’s Own pulp adventure, and he justifies it by appealing to the ignorance of the audience. This strikes me as more of an acknowledgement that he is limited in his linguistic imagination. Preston’s publisher must agree. This is how they are billing the book: “#1 New York Times bestselling author Douglas Preston takes readers on an adventure deep into the Honduran jungle in this riveting, danger-filled narrative about the discovery of an ancient lost civilization.” It wouldn’t be out of place in a Boy’s Own adventure.
I won’t get into Preston’s speculation that because he suffered from a tropical disease that therefore the “lost civilization” his team investigated was also felled by disease, destroying the city. There is simply not enough evidence to know when the site was abandoned to even begin to hint at a cause. Preston uses it as an excuse to deliver a lecture on the power of disease to destroy Native American populations in the Contact Period, but the connection to the site that is theoretically the titular subject of the book is unproven at best.
Lost City of the Monkey God is not a book you should read to learn about lost cities or monkey gods, or the White City, or much of anything other than Preston’s jungle adventures or his he-man intestinal fortitude in the face of protozoans, snakes, and critics. If that’s your cup of tea, then you likely enjoy the book. If you were hoping for a well-researched account of the history, folklore, and archaeology of Mosquitia, you would be better off looking elsewhere.
Lost City of the Monkey God is available January 3 from Grand Central Publishing.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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