Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Into The Debate of "Into The Wild"

Courtesy of goodreads.com
In 1992, hikers found an emaciated body of a young man, huddled in a broken down bus.  In 1993, American author, Jon Krakauer, wrote about the man, Christopher McCandless, in a story for the magazine, Outside.  In 1997, Krakauer wrote a book, Into the Wild, detailing McCandless' life, adventure, and death.  In 2007, the highly anticipated movie version debuted.  A nonfiction account, Into the Wild, is now recommended reading both high schools and college; it has become the pinnacle of what it means to live life to the fullest. And now, 23 years after his death, the story of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild continues to enthrall, enrage, and captivate readers, inspiring fierce debates on freedom of spirit, the pressure of modern society, and the never-ending back and forth between responsibility to society and the timeless yearning for a greater meaning in life.  He was raised in an upper middle class (albeit dysfunctional) family on the East Coast; he was an Emory graduate, an athlete, a young man with the world at his feet.  Then, at 22, he donated all his savings (more than $20,000) to charity, bade his family goodbye, and then set off on a two year trek around the country, living with little more than a backpack and food and goods he worked for and bartered for, with the entire trip culminating in his lonely death in the Alaskan wilderness. His tragic demise only continued to add fuel to the roaring debate, whether or not he was reckless or actually achieved the ideal life, lived while adventuring for more.  

Courtesy of amazon.com
To put it simply, Into the Wild is a biography.  It is written in a frank, straightforward manner.  There is no flowery language or special grammar tricks to make it stand out from a literary aspect.  Jon Krakauer was an assignment journalist for the nature magazine, Outside, at the time of Into the Wild; thus, his writing style is reflective of that background, with his books reading more as long articles and exposés rather than in-depth academic nonfiction.  This is not a book that gained acclaim from it's contribution to literary style; instead, Krakauer focuses on crafting an account that is not only highly engaging, but also makes the reader think.  Krakauer did his research: he tracked down people that McCandless had encountered throughout his journey, he did interviews with his family and friends that he left behind, and he attempted to follow the same routes that McCandless took in hopes of finding reasons why McCandless went where he did. Krakauer took care to document McCandless' travels, interactions, and actions as best as he could, allowing the reader to almost experience the journey as McCandless did. Krakauer's landscape descriptions are breath-taking, but the reader can always sense the underlying dangers in nature.  Krakauer, who is also an expert mountaineer, has a healthy sense of fear of nature and understands how quick it can kill you.  The entire novel has the fear of the elements hanging over it.

Yet, one pitfall of the novel is the lack of detail in McCandless' personal life, details that Krakauer admits haunted McCandless and probably played a large part in driving him to abandon modern society.  Whereas family drama had the potential to take focus away from the journey, exploring the motives, including the severely flawed McCandless family, would have enlightened the reader to McCandless' thought process.  It wasn't until more than a decade after the book publication that the revelation emerged from McCandless' sister that Krakauer was honoring his promise to her to not reveal damning family problems.  This knowledge almost ends up saying more about the family and about McCandless' antagonism towards his family than anything Krakauer could have written.  However, never does Krakauer allow drama to take attention away from McCandless and his philosophy.  He does a noble job of balancing McCandless' inspiring journey and thoughts and the glaring mistakes that he made that led to his death; this writing approach contributes to the uncertainty of the entire journey and whether or not it was worth it in the end to McCandless.

In spite of the enormous amount of speculation, fact gathering, and talk concerning McCandless, it is difficult to figure out how to unpack the story of Chris McCandless. He wrote in his journal that he was driven by anti-materialism and a blossoming sense of anti-society leanings; he endeavored to achieve a higher sense of life and to commune with nature on an almost religious level.  This sense of altruism and his death has sparked two decades of controversy, reverence from a cult-like following of sojourners, faithful to McCandless' ideas and spirit of wandering, and anger from Alaskans and naturists who consider McCandless to be reckless in his endeavor and disrespectful to the force of nature in his naivety about living off the land.  Since the publication of the book, thousands of people have been inspired by McCandless' belief in a society free of stress and the belief that life should be lived to be an adventurer.  On the flip side, hundreds of those people have tried to make the Alaskan trek to the bus in which McCandless died in, resulting in millions of taxpayers' dollars worth of rescues and several deaths.  Educators, parents, police, park rangers, doctors, scientists, the McCandless family, even Krakauer himself have all warned about the dangers of making the trek, stating that even expert naturists struggle with the trail to the bus.  However, this has not scared the hundreds of people who make the trip every year.  They connect with the sense of wanderlust McCandless embodied and they admire the tenacity he had that pushed him to Alaska.  They do not care of the cost, even if it means their lives. This faithful adherence to trying to live a life unbound by societal constraints is noble; however, the question is at what point does noble translate to shortsightedness?  This is the ultimate question that Krakauer poses and is the ultimate take away for the reader to consider.  This is a book that will stay with you; McCandless and his conviction that modern society had taken the joy and adventure out of life will stay with you, no matter what side of the debate you stand.

Chris McCandless
Every generation has a book that divides them.  It causes frenzied debate, with each side convinced that they are right and that the other side is delusional.  These books become the Slaughterhouse-Five, the Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye of literary history; you either love it or hate it and no matter what, the debate continues on about the actions of the characters, the meaning behind the story, and what the author's aim really was.  Into the Wild is possibly one of the most haunting books you will ever read.  It is hard to ignore the impact of this You cannot help but be drawn into McCandless' idealism; his hopes and dreams for the world are nonsensical, Despite being almost 18 years old, the book continues to inspire and at the same time, draw skepticism.  The reader cannot help but wonder the degree of truth in McCandless' crusade and also the degree of absurdity.  Into the Wild will become a book that reflects the overall divide in society.  The debate will roar on and the story of Chris McCandless, an adventurer and a dreamer, will continue to inspire the dreamers and exasperate the pragmatists.