Tuesday, January 8, 2008

into whatever

I just finished reading Into the Wild, a book ostensibly about Chris McCandless, who starved to death at age 22 on his trek into the Alaskan wilderness. But since Chris dies in the first chapter, Krakauer has to fill the rest of the book with comparisons to other wilderness freaks -- including himself. It's a weird book, and it bothered me in more ways than one.

First, the trivial: each chapter starts with not one, but two long-ass quotations, usually from Walden Pond. On top of the embarrassment I feel that Thoreau was one of my high school heroes (along with Tolkien and the rest of that crowd; yes, I spoke Elvish), I'm annoyed by reading interminable, out-of-context, totally outdated musty passages in tiny little italics. In my memory, Walden Pond shimmered with elegant, stern beauty. (Most men do lead lives of quiet desperation, well said!) In reality, Thoreau is a blowhard who badly needed to get laid.

So Krakauer ruined Henry David for me on top of straining my eyesight. What's worse, the quotations are often not even tangentially related to the book. It's like he took a bunch of wilderness books with expired copyrights, tore them up, tossed the pages in a bag, blindfolded himself, and pulled a couple out at random each time he started a new chapter. As if that weren't enough, most of them say the same thing. Nature is beautiful, I like to wander around in it alone. There. Done and done, I can be in his next book.

And another thing: it's not cool to write quasi-dialect simply by mispunctuating the speakers' words. "Would've" and "would of" sound the same, so don't try to tell me they're Okies for speaking that way. You're a snob for hearing them that way.

All right, enough Krakauer bashing for now. Let the Chris McCandless bashing begin. Well, er, not exactly "bashing" -- I don't really know how to bash Chris McCandless. And that's what makes me uncomfortable. There's too many ways to think of a person who survives 112 days in the wild, but not the last 19 days required to escape death. I don't know how to understand Chris. The creepiest part is that he reminds me of myself.

When I was his age, I was hopping freight trains, walking barefoot through London in December, living without a phone, staying out of touch with my parents, and generally not being very sensible. I did manage, though, to hold down jobs, attend school, and survive my early adulthood. The thing is, he sorta did some of that, too. He got along with all sorts of people way better than I did, and he graduated from college with a 4.0.

I think about this kind of thing a lot: what is different about people who had a sensible youth? I work with people who got their first career job before they even left college. Who got married at age 25 and are still (seemingly happily) married 20 years later. How did they know so young what kind of lives they wanted? How could they look so far ahead?

Maybe they seem a bit passionless, but there are other people who threw themselves into their passions at a very young age in a positive, productive way. People who wrote books or became doctors or composers. As opposed to people who wandered aimlessly around the country, reading Tolstoy and, in Chris's case, killing squirrels for food.

Krakauer makes the argument that if Chris had survived, we would've thought he was cool. He probably would've gone on to law school or written a book about his adventures (two of his possible goals) and we would've admired him for his resourcefulness and independence. I totally buy that argument, and that pisses me off even more. I want to believe that Chris spelled his own doom, and luck had nothing to do with it.

I guess I don't like to remember how unmethodical I was back then, how little I knew about how to go after what I wanted. Reading about Chris throws me back into that world: the land of pointless passion.

I did, however, thoroughly enjoy reading Anna Karenina. So maybe it was all worthwhile.


Melanie said...

Hopping freight trains?!? Walking around London barefoot in December?!? Why are we reading about Krakauer? I want Miller! And...for the record...I still think Thoreau was pretty cool. Oh, and - see my website prominently displayed under my name? Nothing like some blatant self promotion on a blog comment.

Melanie said...

or not... it didn't post, so here it is: wwww.melanieabrams.com

leesajay said...

i second melanie about the freight trains and the london. why is this the first i am hearing about this??

Wayfarer said...

I third that!
I'm so jealous...I lived a methodical life in my early 20s when I could've been traveling the world...or hopping freight trains!