13 July 2008

Reading Notes: Into the Wild

Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer, Villard Books, 1996, 207 pp.

Recently, I was thinking about how to answer the question: What type of non-fiction books do you like to read? My initial response was: The kind just like Into the Wild, which I had just completed, although I had to ponder what exactly that type was. In a few adjectives: riveting, novelistic, informative, thought-provoking. Perhaps thought-provoking is the most important. And, like a good novel, the characters have stuck with me for several days after finishing the book. Why were people so taken with Chris McCandless? What motivated McCandless? What did McCandless really learn on his journey into the Alaskan wild? Is there some American ideal that grabs hold of people and drives them to search out the yet unexplored areas of our world, or is it a desire to grapple with living on a precipice of death? Furthermore, while Krakauer has a point of view, I wondered about that perspective, questioning how much of Krakauer's work is about him, how much was supposition, how much was really about McCandless.

I have not seen the Sean Penn produced movie adaptation of this book, nor had I heard of McCandless, the 20-something college graduate who gave away his money and, after being a vagabond for a few years, literally walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness where he died a few months later. I also didn't read the introduction before I read the book, in which Krakauer writes that he was so taken by this story that "a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy [was] impossible". No small wonder, then, that I thought several times -- even before I read Krakauer's account of his trying to climb Devil's Thumb in Alaska as a young man -- that this book was as much about McCandless as it was about Krakauer and, perhaps, all who are called to test their mettle in the wilderness while questing for some sort of personal or spiritual truth.

Krakauer provides insight into McCandless' character in chapters that deal with his family, his two year trek across the American West, and through interviews with people who knew McCandless in school as well as after he gave away all of his belongings, renounced his family and began using the name 'Alexander' as he roamed around the West. There are also chapters about others who have mysteriously left civilized society to live in wilderness areas, whether desert or tundra, who like McCandless eschewed the trappings of wealth, who sought a transcendental-like experience. They left to find themselves; in some cases they did. Some died doing so.

McCandless was taken with Thoreau, with Tolstoy, and, according to Krakauer, Louis L'Amour's portrait of the West. Krakauer touches upon McCandless unhappiness with his family, and, while he suggests that one cause was McCandless' judgmental assessment of his parents' relationship , which began as an adulterous affair, he ultimately doesn't discover why McCandless was so harsh in his assessment of his parents' life and material success. Several of the people that McCandless spent time with during his journeys are described in the book. All of them told Krakauer how smart McCandless was, how caring, and how much they cared about him. But, none seemed to be able to pinpoint why. Two of them even said that they lost their faith (in mankind, in a God) because of Chris' death. That is a powerful influence and it remains a mystery to me, after reading this book, why.

Krakauer devotes a chapter in this book to his obsessive -- and almost deadly -- quest to climb a formidable mountain in Alaska when he was in his early 20's. Despite the odds and the undeniable fact that nobody had been able to traverse the face he wanted to climb, he was convinced that he could do so -- and that he must. In his attempt he came face-to-face with the very real possibility that his situation was precarious, that he not only would he not be able to successfully climb Devil's Thumb, but also that he might die in the attempt. Even if he returned safely to his base camp, he knew that a few errors might have meant that he would not be rescued before he succumbed to hypothermia.

Krakauer's belief is that McCandless was not intent on suicide and that his death was neither a result of stupidity or careless denial of the dangers that he faced. Rather, he writes that McCandless made a few seemingly minor errors that cost him his life. Had he done a few things differently, he would have walked out of the Alaskan wilderness and had stories to tell.

But, would Christopher 'Alex' McCandless have done anything other than tell engaging stories of his escapades living alone for 4 months? Would he have laughed death in the face? Would he be a hero for having done so? Or, would there still be those who would think that he was a fool for taking the risks that he did? Would some think him mentally unstable for having done so? Perhaps he would have walked back into the woods at a later time and made the same mistakes that led to his starvation in a place so remote that there were none to help him.

Since completing Krakauer's book, I read that Krakauer was incorrect with some of his facts and conclusions about McCandless' death. I'm not sure that matters, other than in a theoretical discussion of veracity in memoir and biography. I've also read that McCandless' wilderness shelter -- an abandoned Fairbanks city bus -- has become something of a tourist mecca. Even more than I don't understand McCandless' motivations, I do not understand why some would want to venture into the wild on the Stampede Trail to see a rusted bus where a young man died.

I find Krakauer's description of McCandless and other rogue adventurers interesting to read, but I wish that there were clearer answers as to what he was searching for. I'm not sure that Krakauer knows either, and maybe that is the point. I understand the desire to go live in the woods beside a pond, but, ultimately, the pond can be as inprisioning as society. I don't think that Chris McCandless was a hero, and I don't think that he was courageous for living on his own in the wilderness. Nor do I think that he was a fool for doing so. To be able to confront our demons is the thing that is courageous. I'm not sure that it takes solitude in the wilderness, living on the edge of survivability, to contemplate one's life and come to terms with one's values. I think it is just easier to not consider those things when you don't disrupt the status quo.

I wonder what McCandless would say about those who have made him into a hero. I think he would think that it is bullshit. But, I also wonder if he realized that to live with people one needs to forgive them their shortcomings. Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. If he was an avid reader of Tolstoy I wonder what he thought of the opening line of Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"

Like the happy families in that famous opening line, McCandless remains an enigma.


litlove said...

That's a very interesting review, Cam, on what is clearly an engaging book. For some reason I was most intrigued by your comment that the mistakes Krakauer made weren't important, unless in a theoretical discussion of truth and veracity in biography. I found that an interesting thing to say about a work of non-fiction, and biography in particular where extracting the 'truth' of the situation is supposed to be paramount. I wondered if you might say a bit more about why the inaccuracies didn't matter?

Cam said...

Good question, Litlove. I had originally written more on this and then edited it out. I can see know how I left questions. I will write a fuller explanation later, but short answer is that I don't think that the root cause of his death is pertinent to the book. ME cited starvation as cause of death but there is controversy whether he poisoned himself, leading to starvation, by eating a toxic plant. Regardless of the cause, the book remains more about searching than about the actual events of McCandless' last few months, of which little is known.

Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting -- I've been meaning to read this book for a long time, but haven't yet done it. It's interesting to consider McCandless's motivations and yet I think there is sometimes something mysterious and unknowable that pushes people to do what they do, particularly extreme actions like McCandless's. Interesting that he's turning into a hero for many -- I can see that people might admire him for doing what so few do -- what they long to do maybe but don't have the courage for.

Cam said...

Dorothy -- I agree that for some there is a mysterious drive that pushes them to do something, a compulsion perhaps. I think you are right that people think that it is heroic to fearlessly do something that few others do -- I don't disagree with that -- but I don't think that alone makes one, and particularly McCandless, necessarily a hero. I think he was a troubled person who had to figure things out. I think it's good that he did what he felt he needed to do to figure those things out and I'd like to believe, like Krakauer does, that he wanted to live and to go back to civilization. Yet, I think he was rash and careless in his judgments of the harshness of the wilderness, his own limitations, and narcissistic in his feelings (or lack there of) of people in this world that cared about him, not just the family he abandoned, but other people he befriended along his 2-yr trek. I don't know that one can dismiss that by saying he was young and searching. But, maybe I am too harsh in my judgment as well.