Saturday, August 10, 2013

Reader's Diary #1047- Jon Krakauer: Into the Wild

A few years back I had a cousin and a friend, both of whom had never met one another and lived at opposites ends of the country, tell me that they had just read Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild and it reminded them of me. Whose curiousity wouldn't be piqued by that?

So when the movie came out I just had to see it. And then I was offended.

I thought the movie was well done (loved the Eddie Vedder soundtrack), but I'd have enjoyed it more if I wasn't sitting there thinking, "This guy's an idiot!" I know I'm not always the most social individual, but I'd never have gone that far. And I'd at least have known that living alone in the woods would have killed me.

Still, I was curious that maybe I'd relate more if I actually read the book instead. Planning a road trip to Alaska this summer I was finally motivated. (Granted, it should be noted that unlike Chris McCandless, I traveled there in a Dodge Caravan with my family.)

I had a different reaction this time around. Not only was I finding myself relating to McCandless, I was somewhat surprised that the aforementioned friend and cousin didn't also relate. It's not often that I care to speak on behalf of most males (as I certainly don't think I'm typical or could voice the average Joe), but I think Jon Krakauer's biography of Chris McCandless is a very masculine tome, one that epitomizes the coming of age of most every male, be they jock, nerd, hippie, or prep. This is essentially a story of the point when a man decides he wants to be independent. Independent from want or from whom may differ by male*, but Krakauer does a great job of highlighting this eternal and internal struggle. How a male might act on this struggle, would depend entirely on the male. It is at this point where McCandless distanced himself from the average.

For those unfamilar with Chris McCandless's story, it happened in 1994. He was a young man from a well-to-do family who, after becoming disenchanted with society, decided to hitchhike his away across the U.S. and finally Alaska. Four months later his emaciated body was found. He was 24.

For many, Chris McCandless was an idiot. An ill-prepared, naive, dreamer. Yet many who met him on his travels, even briefly, remained charmed by him and claim to have been affected by their encounter and McCandless's subsequent death. To this day, there are reports of tourists having to be rescued while attempting to follow his trail and find the abandoned bus which had become his shelter in the wilderness. Why this fascination with an individual whom so many others deem a failure?

While in the middle of reading Into The Wild, I found myself at a local museum looking at an exhibit dedicated to John Hornby. Yet another northern failure. It seems that the history of the north is rife with such tragic individuals. In the Northwest Territories alone, the majority of the historical names I can list off the top of my head died in tragic deaths. I started to develop a theory that perhaps we're intrigued by these individuals as a way of defending our own lack of risk taking. Secretly we may be a little envious of the McCandlesses of the world for being brave enough to take on such challenges. But we find comfort in their deaths. They were idiots, we say, who took made selfish and naive decisions. It helps us forget all of those who took stupid risks that paid off, and to a lesser extent, those who were well-prepared yet struck a bout of bad luck. Most importantly it gives us justification for not having taken those risks, the risks that haunt us.

It's this kind of theorizing that Jon Krakauer does in Into the Wild and in doing so it's as much as his story as it was McCandless's. What Krakauer doesn't do is glamourize or mysticize McCandless and I'd defend him against anyone who suggests otherwise. Granted Krakauer wrestles with this, with his fascination, but he also doesn't let him off the hook for the pain he caused others. Nor does Krakauer let off those who brush off McCandless as just another pseudo-intellectual who got what he deserved. Though in defense against the last point I was bothered somewhat by his approach:

It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense. But the stereotype isn’t a good fit. McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose.
My issue with this defense is that he doesn't call out the people who stereotype in the first place. While people might share certain attitudes and characteristics, there is not "another boy." "Some feckless slacker" doesn't exist. If Krakauer took any life and examined it under a microscope the way he did with McCandless, he'd find the individual. If we're being totally frank though, it wasn't his life— meaning and purpose notwithstanding— that compelled us in the first place, it was the morbid fascination with his death.

Still, that one contention aside, I was thoroughly impressed with Krakauer's account of McCandless's life. Normally, I'd probably be put off if a biographer infused so much of himself into his subject. (Incidentally, the publisher doesn't refer to the book as a biography or memoir, but as a travel book.) However, the reflection and nonlinear chronology added up to one of the more unique and insightful biographies memoirs travel books I've ever read.

(*I hope I don't come across as suggesting that a female or genderqueer person couldn't relate to McCandless or enjoy this book, but there are aspects of Chris's life and personality that I can relate to almost any male I can think of, no matter how different from one another they might be.)


Nicola Mansfield said...

The thing that bothered me the most about McCandless' "adventure" was how little regard he must have had for his family. I didn't think he was an idiot, not at all. I thought he was selfish. Did he think about his parents, siblings, etc. when he set off on this selfish oddysey? All I could think was his poor parents.

But I don't know the whole story; perhaps he was abused?

John Mutford said...

Nicola: I agree he was selfish, but certainly normal young man selfish. He clearly didn't think he was going to die, so it's not like he was going to call them up suddenly before heading into the woods. Selfish, but didn't deserve to die for it.

No indication that he was abused, but he did have an issue with his father that certainly went out of the realm of average.