Wednesday, October 31, 2007

there’s even some evil mothers, they’re gonna tell you everything is just dirt

I finished reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer a couple days ago. I’d long wanted to read it, and with the movie out I wanted the book industry to beat the movie industry to the punch.

Krakauer is a good writer, thank goodness, but the best thing about Into the Wild is the story, because it is the essential story – the yearning for purity, the need to prove yourself to yourself. I appreciated not getting too close to the subject Chris McCandless, that he was known mostly through his actions and hearsay from the people he knew or encountered. It helps the reader project him as an alter ego, which he surely is for many. Call him a fool, but anyone who loves nature and knows mainstream materialism can’t help but sympathize with wanting to chuck everything.

Overall I liked the writing. I think Krakauer could have trimmed some of the historical comparisons he draws, especially that of John Franklin, who leads an expedition of men to their deaths. Hardly the same thing! But for the most part the parallels were interesting, including that with Krakauer himself. As I said, McCandless is an alter ego for many people, even me, who also spent a lot of time after college camping alone in the woods – not on any scale close to the subject or author, but enough to understand where that longing comes from. Surely the book became as popular as it did because there are so many people who have felt the same.

Krakauer heads every chapter with at least one quote from a writer, usually a naturalist, and chiefly Thoreau. I bet it was a lot of fun picking those out, but by the end I was only reading halfway through them. Not that they weren’t good, but they grew tedious. Much more interesting were the references to books McCandless had along with him and the notes he scribbled in the margins of Dr. Zhivago, the last book he read. I love knowing that.

In the end, I felt sorry for McCandless. To condemn him seems a way to turn your heart off, to distance yourself from how unfortunate his story is. He was a young, smart and apparently very likeable man and despite all his bravado he didn’t really expect to die. Of course, now as a mother, I can’t help but experience stories like this without that soft membrane around me, and as terrible an end the adventure is for McCandless, my heart really cracked in two for his mother.

As Krakauer writes, "At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidian geometry or marriage. I didn't yet experience its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who'd entrusted the deceased with their hearts."

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