Sunday, March 8, 2009

Into the wild - book review and analysis

Into the Wild. By Jon Krakauer.

Into the wild is basically the story of Chris McCandless who left college family and ties, gave his savings to charity, burned the money in his wallet to trek around United States of America with the ultimate aim of going alone into the wild of Alaska. It tells of this journey, his relationships with different people he met on the road and the final arrival in Alaska and sad demise in an abandoned bus about 25 miles from the town of Healy.
Some very simple book reviews can be found on the internet, bookrags have a study guide to buy, as do MonkeyNotes, and pop critics wrote a good review likening Chris to Jack Kerouac' On the road, a similarity I also picked up on when reading this book. Consider also fyrefly's book blog for a helpful round up of some of the words used in the book as well as a good review.

‘Nemo gets lost’Nemo gets lost – or does he? Nemo we are told in the novel is Latin for nobody. But the stark reality is that somebody, a person made in God’s image, who had a family despite whether he chose to acknowledge it or not, and who met people who cared about him, was lost. And alone he died.

What do we learn from this novel?

Biography or “historical novel”?
Into the wild is a novel that can be analysed from a couple of angles. One can see it as a modern “historical novel” by Jon Krakauer in which he gives a portrayal of the story as he sees it, of Christopher McCandless. That is, it is a fictional novel which has used the historical situation of the life and death of Chris McCandless as a framework. You would then have to ask just how much of this story is fiction. That is, how much are they the theories and opinions of Krakauer about Chris McCandless whilst purporting to tell the story of McCandless as he hits the road on an adventure to Alaska?
In such an analysis you would need to ask what importance and impact each of the chapter quotes that begin each chapter. Just what purpose are they intended to serve. Do they want to justify the authors understanding of the life and behaviour of McCandless and in a sense try to justify it? Do not such quotes by authors such as Jack London, and in chapter 2, the quote by Chris himself “Jack London is King – Alexander Supertramp May 1992” and Leo Tolstoy in chapter 3 influence the reader to a certain reading of McCandless’ “thought process”? For example Thoreau and Tolstoy were two of McCandless’ favourite authors, so much so he carried books by Tolstoy, Gogol and Thoreau into the wild with him and annotated parts of the books with his own comments. Thoreau gives a certain slant on the beauty of nature saying in his novel ‘Ktaadn’, quoted by Krakauer in chapter 17 “Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful..” pg 171. London and Thoreau have much to say about the external realm of nature whereas Tolstoy focused a lot in the internal realm or relationships [ eg. The Kreutza Sonata ], “denial of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute” pg x. and certainly the spiritual side of life. One still must wonder how much of Tolstoy McCandless internalised since in his later life McCandless, to a large extent, avoided the destitute even though he certainly seemed to reject wealth.

For what literary purpose does Krakauer include these quotes? I believe we find an indication in the Authors note at the beginning of the book. There he tells us that he “spent a year trying to understand McCandless”, Authors note pg x, and even more significantly “I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer .. I interrupt McCandless’s story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth.” then last of all, a very important statement found here when he speaks about whether McCandless was admirable or a reckless idiot “My convictions should be apparent soon enough.” Doesn’t such a literary structure direct the reader to a specific conclusion and does it leave the reader really able to “form his or her own opinion of Chris McCandless”? pg xi

Yet the above statement by Krakauer indicates he believes that he is writing a biography, just that he’s not impartial which would then exclude taking the book as a fictional account built around the framework of an historical character. It certainly isn’t an autobiography. If that’s the case, then you need to ask whether Krakauer succeeds in his attempt.

One can then also attempt to see the novel as an attempted objective account of McCandless’ adventure, indeed a biography of sorts. An historical chronicle of McCandless tragic journey into the wild. Yet this is much more difficult to do as Krakauer presents a non chronological account and intersperses it with chapters about his own youthful experiences with family difficulties and mountain climbing brushes with death. It is difficult with such literary license then to agree that the author has “tried to minimize my authorial presence” pg x. However if you think Krakauer succeeds in an objective account you would want to read the surrounding debate about his actions, how people have interpreted his journal entries and the like. You would soon find out that Krakaeur’s take on what the cause of Chris’s death, the accidental poisoning by eating a wrong plant is actually untrue. The plain reality is that Chris died of starvation. And even more tragic is that he refused to take any map with him into the Alaskan trek, yet there was a food stocked warm cabin 6 miles away which he could have made it to even when he found the river un-crossable. In fairness however, I must point out that Krakauer does allude to this on pages 164 and 173.

Let me look at some central chapters and related themes throughout the novel in an attempt to see then if it succeeds as biography or as fiction.

Intimacy and relationships:Chapter 2 is headed ‘The Stampede Trail’ and is introduced with a quote by Jack London. It’s in this chapter that we read of Chris’ death and the last note he left pinned to the door of the bus.
S.O.S I need your help. I am injured. near death and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, pleas remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and will return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless, August?
Quite interestingly Chris signed his plea for help Chris McCandless. Whereas all during the time of his trekking across America he’d not told any his surname and had signed the note on arrival at the bus, Alexander Supertramp. Was it that now he recognised he needed to tell other’s if he died who he was? Had he finally come to value his name and thus his family as identification of who he was? That no one really “is an Island” that Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song speaks of.

What intimacy of relationships does Chris show throughout the book? It’s quite clear that he disdains his parents, but his actions towards his sister reveal a similar disdain. Though she was the only family he wrote to, and though we read how he supposedly cared deeply for his sister Carine, “taking her by the hand to school”, yet he would not play second chair French horn to “his damn sister”. Pg 110.

In Chapter 6 Krakauer depicts much about Chris’ involvement with Ronald Franz. Franz had spent a fair amount of time with Chris during his “adventure” and taught him leatherworking skills etc. But the telling remark by Krakauer is on pg 56
On March 14th Franz left McCandless on the shoulder of Interstate 70 .. McCandless was thrilled to be on his way North, and he was relieved as well – relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. He had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arms length flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. And now he had slipped painlessly out of Ron Franz’s life as well.”

The above quote is also a good example that is crucial to understanding how much of this novel is a biography or whether it’s an historical novel. How does Krakauer know that at that point, McCandless was relieved, and that Krakauer knows the reasons for that relief? We are not told that this comes from any travel diary Chris might have kept!

Chapter 7 continues the theme of relationships when we read of McCandless’ sojourn in the town of Carthage.
Krakauer’s introductory Quote is illuminating.
It is true that many creative people fail to make mature personal relationships, and some are extremely isolated.. also true that in some instances, trauma, in the shape of early separation or bereavement, has steered the potentially creative person toward developing aspects of his personality which can find fulfilment in comparative isolation. But this does not mean that solitary, creative pursuits are themselves pathological…” Anthony Storr ‘Solitude: a return to the self.’ pg 62

At Carthage Chris finds work with Westerberg which enables him to raise funds for surviving the present and preparing for Alaska. Westerberg had thought that the reasons Chris had for his attitude towards his parents must have been good, so left them alone, but now he was dead he’d “be tempted to chew him out … [there’s] a lot worse” pg 65. Krakauer reflects how Chris “brooded .. over his father’s moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love. Eventually Chris rebelled .. with characteristic immoderation.”

What were these shortcomings of his parents? On pg 121-122 of chapter 12 Krakauer related the family background of Chris. How his father Walt had started up a relationship with Billie and run two households while going back and forth between them. How even after the birth of Chris to Billie, Walt had kept up the relationship with Marcia, even fathering another son Quinn with her 2 years later. These were his parents secrets that Chris finally found out about in 1986. Krakauer points out that “children can be harsh judges when it comes to their parents” pg 122 Yet “curiously Chris didn’t hold everyone to the same exacting standards. One of the individuals he professed to admire greatly over the last 2 years of his life was a heavy drinker and incorrigible philanderer who regularly beat up his girlfriends.” Pg 122.
When it came to his literary heroes, he “similarly he didn’t hold the same high standards”. “Jack London was a notorious drunk, Tolstoy despite his famous advocacy of celibacy, had been an enthusiastic sexual adventurers as a young man and went on to father at least 13 children…” pg 122
In a little bit of overstatement Chris had declared to Carine that due to the deception of Walt and Billie “his entire childhood seem like a fiction.”

It’s certainly paradoxical but understandable given the sinful nature of man that such ambiguities in moral expectations exist. Chris we are told held supposedly high moral standards, yet didn’t think he had to operate by the rule and even laws of society, and he would frequently disregard signs and hop free rides on freight cars.

What are we to make of Walt McCandless’ statement on page 104 “[that he ] spent a lot more time with Chris than any of the other children”, even though Krakauer states on page 105 “[Walt is] he’s accustomed to calling the shots... taking control” and Walt was said to have a “famous temper”. These again are the inconsistencies of sinful human nature, yet many children in the past have lived with those inconsistencies. They have not taken the extreme stance of rejecting their family outright.

Is the answer to be found in what Krakauer suggests in chapters 14-15, ‘The Strikine Ice Gap’ by alluding to his own childhood and youth ambition to climb the devils thumb? Pg 133f.
Krakauer himself came to see the reality of less than perfect parents and children in his own imperfections. Pg 147 unlike McCandless.
Again we are told how Krakauer’s own father “drilled into me that anything less than winning was failure”. Pg 147. High expectations from parents can be onerous, but one also needs to see that we all need forgiveness.

Then on page 149 we read how Krakauer’s father “[had] instilled in me a great and burning ambition; it had simply found expression in an unintended pursuit. He never understood the devils thumb was the same as medical school, only different.”
Krakauer is wrong – the point is not about having a great and burning ambition per se, it’s what that burning ambition is for! Is it for others, for relationships? Helping others by going to medical school is much different to climbing a mountain for self-glory! To be able to say “I did it.” Consider carefully the reflective statements on pg 149.
For Krakauer “at the age of 23, personal mortality – the idea of my own death – was still largely outside my conceptual grasp. When I decamped from Boulder for Alaska, my head swimming with visions of glory and redemption on the devils thumb..”

Then on page 150-151 we again read from Krakauer of his own life similarities. Krakauer says he found he was “forced to acknowledge that volition alone, however powerful, was not going to get me up the north wall. I saw, finally that nothing was.” How true it is that some things are beyond our ability or enthusiasm, no matter what some educationalists say to their students by way of encouragement!
He concludes the chapter of his own life experience by saying on pg 154 “it’s easy when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something bad enough, it is your God given right to have it.” And “when I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap ridden logic.” Pg 154.

The Authentic Life:There’s been a tendency over the last generation or so, perhaps, strengthened by university professors of a generation ago musing that the life of the ancient forebears was in some sense more authentic and real, lived with integrity than now. As though civilization corrupts mankind, just consider Estwick Evans quote on page 156 at the beginning of the chapter,
I wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life, to divest myself of factitious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilisations.. and to find amidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and of the true interests of man….”
It may be in folk lore that some think that the notion that earlier on the evolutionary scale man was better, life was better than today with Bush and Bosnia and Iraq and so on. Yet this is a picture which has little to do with reality.

Is the life portrayed of Chris in the novel all that authentic? We read again and again of his high moral standards, yet these high Standards that Chris held to did not prevent him from sponging of others for food and lifts, something quite evident in the novel yet not questioned by Krakauer. Just one case will suffice, that of Gaylord Stuckey who gave Chris a lift to Alaska in the RV he was delivering there says “he wanted to prove to himself that he could make it on his own, without anybody else’s help” pg 158 yet this encounter with Stuckey, we find that Stuckey fed him all the way to Alaska – it took 3 days, and Stuckey drove him there! Pg 159 It seems Chris’ ideals couldn’t recognise this reality even when it was pointed out! It’s presumptuous isn’t it to claim to be independent while all the time relying on the generosity and hard work of others?

At the bus Chris wrote his declaration of independence. Signing it Alexander Supertramp May 1992. Pg 162
Two years he walks the earth, no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes, ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road[1]. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the west is the best”. Now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitch hiking bring him to the great white north. No longer to be poisoned by the civilisation he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

Is it a paradox that no longer poisoned by civilisation that as Krakauer believes, he’s now poisoned by the wild? Or even if he merely starves to death is it not a paradox that in the wild he cannot exist for long! When he got there as the above quote shows, he is full of exuberance, signing his name Alexander Supertramp. Yet as the book began, he pleas for salvation as Chris McCandless.

As Krakauer points out on page 173, “in coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned for uncharted territory, to find a blank spot on the map… but there were none – not in Alaska. But Chris with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution. He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if no where else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.”
Yet such behaviour severely limited his chances of survival. It is not authentic to spit into the wind.

No one questions that it’s extremely difficult to walk more than a couple of miles a day in winter, and even more so when it begins to thaw, yet how much in the wild he is? By Alaska standards it doesn’t count as wilderness. There are four [ stocked with basics ] cabins within 6 miles of where he stays, there’s a major thoroughfare [ highway ] just 30 miles to the east. 16 miles away is a major tourist spot which gets thousands of daily tourists over a road patrolled by the National Park Service! Pg 164.
Of course he did try to trek 500 miles across real wilderness to Tidewater, but after 14 days and only covering 15 miles “he turned around” pg 164. Reality has a habit of finally hitting home.

The Inner Journey:Krakauer declares that unlike Muir and Thoreau, Chris “went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but to explore the inner country of his own soul.”
However even as Krakauer points out, his “journal” contains not many reflections on the wilderness at all, but rather “entries that dealt mainly with food.” Pg 182. Granted Chris scribbled notes in the margins of the books he took with him that deal with purpose and relationships, as we read at the rear of the book he was writing on as a journal,
I am reborn. This is my dawn. Real life has just begun …. All true meaning resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon, what it means to you.” Pg 167.
After two months it seems McCandless decided to return to civilisation. “He seemed to have moved beyond his need to assert so adamantly his autonomy, his need to separate himself from his parents.” Pg 167.
but this is hardly convincing evidence that his purpose had been to explore his own soul, references to the inner being notwithstanding. Such references to Chris’ inner search are meagre and the most powerful is a mere phrase in the single quote written as his Declaration of Independence on page 162 to “kill the false being within”.

The journey of youthful naïveté?
Krakauer won’t accept that McCandless was some “loopy young man, some feckless slacker adrift and confused, racked by existential despair.” Pg 183
Though he admits he made “dumb mistakes” and “screwed up” yet “I admire what he was trying to do” pg 184. However one should ask Krakauer whether admiration really addresses “dumb mistakes”.

Krakauer’s friend suggest that we fail to recall because we are adults, the “passions and longings of youth”. Pg 185. However again passion doesn’t excuse recklessness. And further, pitting Adulthood against youth isn’t a complete answer. Rather we need to recognise that sin and arrogance and self-centredness afflict all ages.

As Krakauer has informed us earlier while making a comparison with Rosellini, Waterman, McCunn, “McCandless was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of Nature .. and displayed a staggering paucity of common sense .. [yet ] he wasn’t mentally ill.” Pg 85. Krakauer would rather have us see Chris as more like Everett Ruess chapter 9, pg 87f, who loved the beauty of nature, which certainly comes across in ‘Into the wild’, but Krakauer has hinted at other avenues which hold allure such as Chris journey to explore his own soul but which in the end are not convincingly argued due to lack of first hand writings from Chris himself.

So is it a journey of youthful naïveté by someone who made some dumb mistakes or was Chris really racked by existential despair? Was he loopy or passionate? Was he mentally ill or just exploring his own soul? On Krakauer reading of Chris' life we know prefers to see him as a young man who was passionate and just made some dumb mistakes, and he wants the reader to come to understand Chris by Krakauer’s relating his own life experiences, saying on pg 154 “it’s easy when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something bad enough, it is your God given right to have it.” And “when I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap ridden logic.”
It seems to me that overall the novel is an attempted biography with a lot of interpretation on Krakauer's part. Whether you see it that way will depend on how you weigh any supporting evidence Krakauer gives the reader for understanding him this way. Certainly the many chapters dealing with Krakauer's own life and those of other mountaineers tend to be the authors justification for his reading of Chris' life.

The Movie:When you look at the movie ‘Into the Wild’ you are faced with another dilemma. The movie romanticises his journey, it humanises Chris McCandless far beyond what Krakauer’s account does, the media of film has a tendency to do that anyway. It starts with Chris ending College and preparing to set out on his adventure and his sisters observation that "it was inevitable that he would breakway and he did so with characteristic immoderation." Later we find in the movie that Chris is badly beaten up by a railroad “security” man, whereas in the novel this is not alluded to at all. Still we cannot allow reality to get in the way of a good movie can we?

Finally:What are to make of McCandless and his journey? Such a well read young man, whose literary heroes of Jack London and Tolstoy we can say both seem to have greatly inspired Chris, and yet maybe we need to heed what one critic in Krakauer’s book wrote “Jack London got it right in ‘To Build a fire’, McCandless is, finally, just a pale 20th Century burlesque of London’s protagonist, who freezes because he ignores advice and commits big time hubris...” pg 72-73. How can one read such an author as Jack London and not take heed to warnings about getting into situations for which you are not equipped or not well prepared? Is such behaviour merely excused by youth and idealism? If we consider today’s present youth generation and our culture which has been heralded as postmodern, where Absolutes are subjective and that what counts is brute personal experience then maybe we do get to understand McCandless a bit better.

Either way, you can see it as representative of a young man in search of something. In one sense it could be seen as a modern version of the beatnik Jack Kerack’s who wrote ‘On the road’. No one should mistake the notion that this novel is nonetheless having an impact upon the present generation. As others have observed of Chris McCandless’ life and final death, the bus where he died in Alaska has become a place of pilgrimage. It is being seen as something significant, even if we are unsure about what that significance is. When you understand that this novel is a required English text of many high school students, you start to see its broadening influence.

What will be the impact of such a novel on the present day postmodern generation? We must warn them that to spit into the wind can have dire consequences!

[1] These lines are a nod to Chris’ favourite song by Roger Miller. Pg 178.

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