How Do You Please a Father? Or a Father Figure?

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2012 12:24 AM

Walking and Talking

Gideon Lewis-Kraus went on a pilgrimage with Tom Bissell. Only one of them wrote a book about it.

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Tom Bissell
Tom Bissell

Photograph by Hendrik Dey.

"Travel writers are seldom scholars," Tom wrote in 2006, in a fiery and vicious essay, collected in his book, on Robert D. Kaplan. "They are, by inclination if not definition, transients and dilettantes. All that can save the travel writer and redeem his or her often inexpert perceptions of foreign people and places is curiosity, a willingness to be uncertain, an essential emotional generosity, and an ability to write." Gideon has in mind these four qualities for himself, while in turn he despises the travel writers whose shoddy yet sometimes affecting guidebooks he clutches in the rain and cold.

Like all books, Gideon's comes with endorsements. One harrowing and unfortunate declaration (by blurb machine Gary Shteyngart) describes the book as Eat, Pray, Love as written by David Foster Wallace. As upsetting as that is, it's accurate. And to reclaim the much-abused travel and self-discovery memoir would be a good thing. Gideon has an unusual, maybe-bizarre, maybe-genius travel-writing method. He writes largely in mass emails, a process he documents himself performing throughout the book. He has, this year, been reporting in Japan, and was sending his dispatches to some dozen people, including his brother and Tom. A recent email from that trip with the subject line "Day 2/3" was 3,200 words: long for the medium, short for, say, the New York Review of Books. His raw email copy is basically magazine-ready.

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In Japan the previous time, for the second pilgrimage of the book, he was accompanied for a brief while by his grandfather, and they had this conversation about his father:

“I'm sure he still won't read the emails I send out along the way.” My father seems to have made a habit of not reading what I've written. He'll buy a copy of a magazine I've got something in, he'll put it out on the coffee table and show all his friends, and he still won't read it. It boggles my mind.

”Well, Gideon, you do write a lot sometimes. Those emails you send are pretty long ... Lois and I really liked all the dispatches you sent out from Spain, but you didn't do the walk just to send out emails, did you?” …

”Yes, I definitely did it just to send emails. Most of what I do is designed to generate material for indefensibly long emails.”

“Really?”

“No. Well, yeah, but no.”

The oppositional stutter there, ironic in intention or at least open about its conflict, signals a discomfort with this odd process that he has invented or more accurately reinvented. "We are all of us deeply alarmed," Bissell wrote in 2010, in an appreciative essay on Tommy Wiseau, the director of the terrible film The Room, by "the parts of us that are selfish and controlling, that crave attention at any cost, that imagine ourselves as superlatively gifted, that arrange all sources of light—whether literal or metaphysical—to be flattering." There is something so unimpeachably joyful and childlike about this process of email-blasting one's friends and family, but also something hurt and needy. Or, requesting to be hurt: He reacts with overt hostility to responses he deems inappropriate; notable, in that he is the one broadcasting something between a monologue and an assault. At one point, midway in his travels, he simply deletes unread all responses to his emails that begin with a cheery "It sounds like you're having a wonderful trip!"