peteg's blog - noise - books - 2014 03 09 LewisKraus ASenseOfDirection

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful

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I picked this up on the strength of Lewis-Kraus's review of Clune's White Out in the New Yorker (blog!). He can write, but has he got anything to say? Well yes, but has he got anything to say about anything except himself?

I liked the time in Berlin, though it was a bit too much a-gentleman-never-tells about the women he spends all his time with; could we at least have a personality to go with a name? Is even that too much to say? The Camino part was the best of the pilgrimages. Shikoku was tedious and painful, and the concluding Hasidic Jewfest in the Ukraine is a continuous slide into bathos; p285 makes it sound like an academic conference. I want to like this bloke — he did get me onto White Out and he writes like a demon — but there's not much here.

Some random comments. Circa p192: he makes pilgrimages sound like PhDs, with some expectation that the payoff will come in the form of a partner, which does not resonate with his earlier ideas of personal growth. His observations about loneliness are cliched. James Caviezel: "Are you lonely?" Sean Penn: "Only around people." — The Thin Red Line (1998). Spot on, though, and it was the same for me in Saigon.

p216 too much choice: didn't you read Barry Schwartz? What did you learn from Richard Rorty? p30: defensible reasons for doing stuff, spot on, though not spectacularly original:

It's okay to do something self-indulgent if it also hurts. [...] It's okay to do most things for the sake of a job, and it's okay to do anything for the sake of a mutual protection racket. All this giving of reasons is exhasuting, and the vast majority of them are ex post facto anyway. It would be so much easier and more honest if we could all just let each other get away with saying that we felt like it.

Yeah, mutual protection racket is family-as-ghetto. After-the-fact justification is called abduction, son, and it is a very old idea. What's true here is not new, but I'm not going to complete that thought.

I liked this relationship with his brother. As the Ukraine bit is so weak I never got a grip on his Dad as anything but a gay man and terrible father; no idea what sort of rabbi he was. Lewis-Kraus also suffers from the same weak moral drawing that he slags other writers off for. p297: David Byrne's Once in a Lifetime. Something was in the air.

Lewis-Kraus does not canvas volunteerism as a source of meaning, or a reasonable justification to go on an extended holiday; in other words, this is not informed travel writing ala Paul Theroux. Oscar Wilde's stories made me want to write and this book makes me not want to take a long secular religious walk.

Reviews: Colm Tóibín at Guardian gets it about right. Some bloke at The Rumpus identifies many of its weaknesses but wishes them away. You did notice the narcissism! For why else do you remark upon it? I guess this is Gen Y excusing Gen Y. Arthur House at the Telegraph is brave enough to call it as it is. I note the dearth of reviews from the usual U.S. sources, you know, the ones he writes articles for.