A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

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For those of you with literary ambitions, be warned: this book might be painful. You will read A Sense of Direction and recall your confused chasing of said ambition, all that procrastination and thrown time, the (essential but still stinging) aimlessness, and you will realize just how much you sucked at it, how you even wasted your time-wasting. Like this: you took a few years to be irresponsible and came back with sexual regrets and memories of hangovers and some funny stories; Gideon Lewis-Kraus did the same and he’s got more poignant sexual regrets, hangovers in more exotic locales, funnier stories and a terrific book. So, before you pick this up – and you should, because it’s very good – know this: Lewis-Kraus is much, much better at being aimless than you are.

Here’s what happened. Lewis-Kraus was living in San Francisco in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. A string of unfulfilling relationships. Living with his (employed) brother. Days spent jogging and picking up dry cleaning. In short, like everyone I know who’s motivated by something other than the desire to make money, Lewis-Kraus was feeling a deep sense of restlessness and discontent, trapped in what he calls his “era of inconsequence.”

So, like overeducated disgruntled literary types everywhere, he moved to Berlin.

The subsequent forty-two pages of parties, drugs, alcohol, parties, lengthy early-morning conversations about art and “art,” secret forest parties, gallery openings, ultratrendy bars, and after-parties, etc. are a dead-on portrayal of what it is to be an underemployed young thing in today’s Berlin. It’s a different order of ambition there: no one cares about your job or your rent or social standing. You don’t have to be doing anything – the question ‘So what do you do?’ is, in Berlin, a stupid one – and Lewis-Kraus is proudly and enjoyably doing nothing of economic value. (Though ultimately he wrote a book about it, so I guess that slacking’s redeemed.) And it sounds extraordinarily fun and irresponsible and all that, but Lewis-Kraus is still – and this isn’t so surprising – unfulfilled.

So he takes up an invitation from writer Tom Bissell to do the Camino de Santiago, a nine-hundred-kilometer religious pilgrimage across Spain. Why? He’s not quite sure and spends a good chunk of the actual hike trying to figure it out. In part because the trek’s purpose (to finish) is obvious and all-consuming, and progress is clearly demarcated. Because it offers really simple but unbending strictures (walk a lot, everyday) that let him escape the “stifling freedom” of Berlin.

The walk is very taxing on his psyche and on his body and on his and Tom’s relationship (though, as a read, it’s very entertaining). It is also, after all’s been balanced out, spiritually and emotionally healthy; or at least points to (as my therapist says) what’s really going on: Lewis-Kraus’s father came out in his mid-forties, and Lewis-Kraus never quite forgave him or figured out what it retroactively means to be raised by a closeted homosexual. This is the psychical core of the book/journey, and it’s clear it’s not over just because he finishes the Camino.

Lewis-Kraus returns to Berlin but realizes immediately he can’t stay – Berlin is positioned as the anti-pilgrimage: stationary purposeless denizens lost in meaninglessness – and plans another pilgrimage, because it’s something to do: “You weren’t just bumming around planlessly, you were going on pilgrimage.” So he goes on a mostly-solo circuit of eighty-eight temples in Shikoku, Japan. (Something about authenticity – the Camino is overrun with tourists, but almost nobody, let alone foreigners, does the eighty-eight temples on foot – and some unpersuasive symbolic stuff.) This one is very tough, mostly because he’s alone for the bulk of it. Still, he finishes; and to cap things off he travels to the middle of Ukraine with 40,000 Hasidim, and drags his brother and father along so everyone can finally have it out with each other. It takes a while – and it’s an emotionally jolting, very moving, and often hysterical while – but it ends more or less happily.

To get the unqualified praise out of the way: this book is gorgeously written. (It’s also wonderfully organized and structured, but you may need a second reading to appreciate it.) I can’t emphasize enough how much of a difference this makes. If I ungraciously summarized the book – “A pretentious literary type gets a Fulbright, goes to Berlin, parties for a couple of years but still feels, like, so empty and goes on a really long revelatory walk with another pretentious writer, then goes by himself to a deserted temple-dotted island in Japan, then heads to the Ukrainian countryside with his gay rabbi dad, and in the process learns a lot about himself and kind of comes to term with all this personal shit” – it doesn’t seem so appealing, does it. (Or maybe it does: Eat, Pray, Love for the plastic glasses-wearing crowd.) In the hands of a lesser writer such a project would instantly collapse under its own narcissistic weight. But Lewis-Kraus is smart and funny and honest enough that you don’t notice or don’t care how navel-gazey the book sometimes is. Yes, Lewis-Kraus’s malaise is of a rather particular sort, one that, say, my grandparents would not sympathize with. (Get a job, they’d say. Find a girl and settle down.) But he’s unflinching about everyone and everything around him, including himself, and it’s all used as a springboard for very sharp and unrestrained commentary, which almost always works because it’s so smart and well-written. When it comes down to it, what else matters?

This means that, with respect to topic and genre, the book is diffuse and not easily classified. As a memoir – which it is, I think – it’s frequently very touching. Lewis-Kraus’s issues with his father run deep, clearly; his perpetual restlessness is, on some level, how he copes with the question of who his father really is, and all these pilgrimages are how he at first evades then confronts (and ultimately forgives) his father’s sins. As a travel book, it’s phenomenal – imagine if your smartest and wittiest friend went on a weird trip and wrote crazy long but immensely entertaining email dispatches about it. (This, in fact, was how great swaths of the book were originally written.) As a sort of accessible sociology book on pilgrimages, it’s top-notch – Lewis-Kraus offers a very persuasive and informed argument about the nature and role of pilgrimages, how they function as a religious pretext to do something a pilgrim wouldn’t be allowed to do otherwise (like take a vacation). But as a book about what I suppose is called ‘personal discovery,’ it’s… complicated.

Because to a certain degree, Lewis-Kraus went on these trips in order to write about them. While he’s tangentially honest about this – “Most of what I do is designed to generate material for indefensibly long emails,” he (sort of) jokes to his grandfather; and he and Bissell have this funny writing-in-notebook-one-upmanship thing going on; and the whole Ukraine trip was a planned chapter from the start – it occasionally threatens to undermine the urgency and poignancy of what he’s going through. Not forced exactly, but kind of primed: Tragedy/misery/pain is awful, unless you’re a writer, in which case it’s awful and makes for great material.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters. Those “indefensibly long emails” – this book, more or less – are how Lewis-Kraus processes his experience, are even part of the experience itself. He’s aimless, sure, but meticulously, obsessively, beautifully so.

Menachem Kaiser is a writer living between Brooklyn, NY and various eastern European countries. His work has appeared in Slate, Vogue, The Atlantic, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a book about narrative and WW2. More from this author →