A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful

Image of A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful
Release Date: 
May 6, 2013
Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: 

“A Sense of Direction seems the product of an overly educated, overly entitled entity.”

The irony implicit in the title of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ new book A Sense of Direction is that a sense of direction is something the author lacks, and never, at any point in his narrative, seems to desire.

While this is hardly revolutionary—many an author writes from the source of his wound—it transforms what might have been an intriguing collection of pensées des sentiers on the nature of pilgrimage (a term that has all but lost its meaning in our modern age) into a diary of a very long, tedious walk.

Yet in all fairness, Direction is more than just the journal of that one long, twisted walk.

It is a Russian Matrushka doll within a doll in that no sooner does our author complete his first pilgrimage (along Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago—which has acted as source material for many a book, including the rather splendid Diary of a Magus by Paulo Coelho)—he sets off on another walking the circuit of 88—just like piano keys—temples on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.

And then, just when we are ready at last for the lad to settle in with us and tell us what he has learned and how the act of pilgrimage will inform his method of living from this day forward, he zigs when we think he will zag instead setting off on a third journey to Uman, smack between Odessa and Kiev, to spend Rosh Hashanah marching among the Hasids on their annual pilgrimage to wash away their sins.

This time he takes his brother and gay father (the “gay” part is an important detail that will be greatly examined, if not actually compassionately explored) along with him, perhaps to infuse this final pilgrimage with some sense of meaning—direction—that the other two lacked.

Try though he might through sheer dint of his ebullient command of vocabulary to wow his readers into a sense of sharing something important, Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ exploration of the nature of the act of pilgrimage seems to have more in common with the mound of mashed potatoes about which Richard Dreyfus insisted, “It’s important; it means something,” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind than it does with, say, the apostles experience of the transfiguration.

Not that he doesn’t talk a good game:

“A pilgrimage like this is an old and corporeal kind of shock therapy, a structure that is maintained and promoted to help inspire an embodied sense of gratitude and wonder at the variety and generosity of the world, a world much bigger than our petty fears and desponds and regrets. It’s gamed for you to have the experience, and then the memory, of finding an unclaimed one-thousand-yen note in an insulated shack in some middle of nowhere between remote mountain temples.”

Even as the reader feels his desponds begin to tingle, this momentary insight, like all the rest, is balanced by something like this: a brief exchange in which the author begins to see that perhaps his father’s struggle with sexuality hurt the father as much as it did the ultimately abandoned son:

“I felt as though I were walking slowly across a thin and narrow bridge. The way the words hung limp in the air before me made them sound like the words of someone very near to losing control. It felt important to get this right.

“’What I’m saying is that I don’t think I ever had a very good sense for how hard, for lack of a better way of putting it, your life has been. And I’m sorry, Dad.’

“I looked around me, and I stopped to write this down.”

There it is: “I stopped to write this down.”

This is the aspect of the book transforming the experience into something akin to what MTV might make of it, “Real World: Pilgrimage,” in which seven great looking young people fight and drink their way down three of the worlds holiest sites, all in one long, rowdy season.

The issue is that our author is a meta guy living in a supra meta world. He seems convinced as a writer that it is his sole role in life to “write this down.”

It is as if he experiences the eyes in his head as twin cameras able to record everything in fabulous 3-D, which his brain acting as a transponder beams out directly to the brains of his Twitter followers and Facebook friends.

Thus, while scrupulously writing things down, it seems as if he misses the point. Like all those modern authors who live without electricity for a year or who leave London for a tree house ten miles outside Des Moines, and then rush to get their experiential books out to their “public,” Mr. Lewis-Kraus makes the gravest error of all mistakenly believing his can present his individual experience as universal.

In a world of snowflakes in which while we are all created from the same substance—no two quite alike and each unique—this is not the case. Not unless the individual experience gets down beneath our configurations and deep into the heart of our joint substance.

Sadly, that never happens here.

It takes the author of A Sense of Direction 300+ pages of Nordic Trac walking poles and snarky comments to finally sit down and get his bearings.

Then in the slim ten pages of his work dedicated to filtering through the experiences so scrupulously shared in the rest, the conclusions Mr. Lewis-Kraus comes to are disappointingly facile—even if our author chooses to quote Rilke and Camus and even Nietzsche:

“By pilgrimage’s end, all the pain and all the misery are granted their place in the retrospective order of things. This, I think, is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote of the eternal return: the sense of confident resignation that says, right now, no matter how bad things have been, I have endured and am enduring, and thus could not ask for anything to have been different.”

The reader politely disagrees. He cannot help but wish, after having taken these pilgrimages along with the hand-wringing, navel-gazing Gideon Lewis-Kraus, that things had been vastly different and the author had less of a need to share the crumbs of each meal with us in vast, tiring detail, instead, sharing with us the banquet of transformation his title implies.

As such, the title seems something of a sham in that the author did not include his own name in it, as he is, after all, the sole subject of his book.

In the end, A Sense of Direction seems the product of an overly educated, overly entitled entity. In terms of truth in advertising, the subtitle, which reads Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, should instead have been Enlightenment for the One Percent.

For the rest of us who spend our late twenties looking for or keeping a job, paying off college loans, and hoping one day to be able to afford something better and more fulfilling, the story of multiple pilgrimages of a young man leaving San Francisco for Berlin—in order to blow his Fulbright money in bars and at art openings—then heading for the open road due to a sense of ennui and whiny discontent will resonate little.