What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gideon Lewis-Krauss's "A Sense of Direction"

The New Yorker’s "Briefly Noted" assessment of Gideon Lewis-Krauss’s brilliant A Sense of Direction strikes me as just about perfect. It says,

Always worried that he was missing some other, better party, Lewis-Kraus moved from San Francisco to Berlin and then set out on a series of pilgrimages: Camino de Santiago, in Spain; Shikoku, in Japan; and Uman, in Ukraine. He makes the three treks—Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish, respectively—as a secularist, hunting for clarity while nursing his blistered feet: “In my terror of stasis I had chosen motion; in my total absence of stability or routine I felt both electrified and panicked.” Perhaps by design, the writing—beautiful and often very funny—frequently mimics the setting: during the Berlin segment it’s restless, and, on the circular route of Shikoku, sometimes lacks direction. But on the Camino Lewis-Kraus weaves a story that is both searching and purposeful, one that forces the reader, like the pilgrim, to value the journey as much as the destination. [“Briefly Noted,” The New Yorker, May 28, 2012]

My only quibble with this review is that it seems to consider the Camino section to be the book’s best part. For me, the Shikoku segment is the most absorbing. It contains Lewis-Krauss’s most descriptive writing, and his most reflective. Here are four excerpts:

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.

It’s a Saturday night and the traffic never let’s up, but I find a piece of plywood to block the door, and that keeps the worst of the rain out. I drift in and out of sleep, dreaming of the Camino. At first light I rise to look for an open convenience store for a rice ball and a can of coffee.

The descent is sharply pitched and I can barely see the towers of cedar through the motionless sulk of cloud, but I know I’ve got a place to stay ahead and I feel as though I’ve begun to get the hang of this. I pick my way with care between the slick rocks. Across the valley gray panes of mountain stack flat against the late horizon; a dense brume of smoky white gives depth to the ridges.

The next twenty kilometers follow a serpentine road along a high, rolling, hillocked ridge of peninsula, and the air is warm and clear, and off to our right are glimpses of an emerald inlet, and to our left and a few hundred meters below, sharp crimped spines of steep jetty shear and buckle into the silver sea, their steeps felted in dark cedar, unruly lime feathers of bamboo, and the occasional pink bursts of new-blossoming cherry. In the little bays the water pools in absinthe clouds, the beaches pebbled black.

Note the use of first-person, present tense (my favorite combination) and the attentiveness to both inner and outer reality. When he’s really on, really noticing, as he is in the Shikoku part, Lewis-Krauss thinks with all his senses. He seems alert to everything: experience, memory, “dense brume of smoky white,” rice ball and can of coffee, “steeps felted in dark cedar, unruly lime feathers of bamboo, and the occasional pink bursts of new-blossoming cherry.” Ravishing!

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