Book & Film: Into the Wild

[Delightfully spoiler free!]

Since I have had more time to devote to leisure reading lately (as opposed to professional/professorial reading), I was able to pick up and read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild in a quick burst of frenzied page turning. I started it on the recommendation of my friend C., whose taste in books is pretty much always the same as mine. (We were English majors together in undergrad and had the same classes, etc., which — other than that we are both awesome — may explain it.) Anyway, she was right; it was a great read.

I had been a little suspicious of it at first, since the book seemed like the kind of thing about which, in high school, I would have ruined a perfectly good pair of pants. Back then I was easily romanced by tales of anti-establishment adventures à la On the Road, Down the River, and other books whose titles are prepositional phrases. Krakauer has shouldered the mantle of the adventurous prepositional phrase for contemporary readers: Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven, etc. So why was I suspicious?

Well, I have to admit a certain distaste for a lot of the books I loved in high school. Something in the growing-up process has made Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise seem less like free-spirited Men of Jazz and Adventure and more like models for How to be Complete Douches Without Repercussions. Henry David Thoreau, once beloved by the eleven-year-old me who had just come home from seeing Dead Poets Society in the theater, now seems to be something of an over-dramatic priss. I must be getting cynical in my old age — that or I have dated too many Sals, Deans, and Holden Caulfields. But I digress.

Despite the somewhat naïve idealism of Chris McCandless (or, at least, an idealism that seems naïve from the perspective of someone as well-entrenched in the system as I am and ever shall be), there is something endearing and charismatic about him, both in the way Krakauer sets him down on the page and in the way Emile Hirsch plays him on screen. I even managed to overcome my gut reaction to his appearance in the film (which is to say, I managed to ignore the fact that he looks somewhat like at least five generically annoying Zemblan hippies I know and exactly like one specific Zemblan hippy whose face I am duty-bound to punch flat the next time I see him).

But for the place-names on the sign, the above scene could be taking place anywhere in Zembla at this very minute.

This is not to say that the thoughts of Zembla evoked by the book and the film are all bad — quite the contrary. Bear with me here. The following passage from that over-dramatic priss Thoreau is one of the epigraphs with which Krakauer begins a chapter:

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,–that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. […] The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Here’s another epigraph I liked, this one by John Haines:

The physical domain of the country had its counterpart in me. The trails I made led outward into hills and swamps, but they led inward also. From the study of things underfoot, and from reading and thinking, came a kind of exploration, myself and the land. In time the two became one in my mind, With the gathering force of an essential thing realizing itself out of early ground, I faced in myself a passionate and tenacious longing–to put away thought forever, and all the trouble it brings, all but the nearest desire, direct and searching.

Reading these words alongside Krakauer’s account of McCandless’s life called to mind memories of those specific locations that, for me, like Tintern Abbey does for Wordsworth, bring sweet sensations in hours of weariness. Locations where, even if briefly, life does seem “more elastic, more starry, more immortal,” or where intellectual concerns are subjugated to an irrational and yet incorporeal sort of experience. I thought of the place in the Sierras where I learned to rock climb twenty years ago; and of the bit of Zembla coast where incoming waves pound against a cliffside of brutal igneous rocks, crashing in giant plumes overhead; and of the particular cast of light on the rainy Pacific Ocean that makes three nearly indistinguishable shades of grey out of the sea and sand and sky, against which everything else can only become silhouettes. And then just for a second my heart broke a little bit to think of how very, very far away those places all are now.

I think that’s when I stopped worrying about whether Chris McCandless was a person I would like very much and started entertaining some Supertrampian thoughts of my own. As I imagined myself disappearing back into the West with a shaking fist and a resounding “FUCK YOU” to Codes of Society and The Man, I was finally sold on the book.

The film, all shot on location, satisfied my jones for breathtaking landscape and beautiful, beautiful snow. [Confidential to Snow: Someday we will meet again, my precious!]

Perhaps it’s the recent thrill I have been getting from Romantic Poetry or perhaps it’s that I have reached my threshhold for the local weather and people of New Wye, but I thought that living in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness seemed like a pretty attractive plan. See? Pretty! Bracing! No lousy interlopers gettin’ all up in your kitchen! Also, no kitchen!

Unfortunately, upon closing the book and then seeing the final credits roll by, I had to snap back to reality: I’m still here in New Wye, in the 90-degree weather and soul-crushing humidity, in the midst of my crappy neighborhood, working for The Man and paying my goddamned bills. At least for now. Heh.

Seriously, though, I highly enjoyed both the book and the film, so you should check them out! Thanks for the recommendation, C!

3 thoughts on “Book & Film: Into the Wild

  1. clarabella June 5, 2008 / 9:24 pm

    You’re welcome. I loved both too. Thanks for actually analyzing and putting into eloquent words just WHY the story is so fascinating.

  2. Brandon June 6, 2008 / 12:00 pm

    There was a time when I would have gone bonkers for a movie like Into the Wild. Instead, I found my interior monologue saying things like “Stupid hippie! Stop being stupid!” while I watched it in a theater last fall. I was a big fan of On the Road during my undergrad years. I wonder how it would read now that I’m officially an adult, not an undergrad at a liberal arts college, working for the man every night and day, etc. To the bookshelf!

  3. Alfina the Vague June 9, 2008 / 3:30 pm

    C- Thanks. And, yeah, fascinating: I keep thinking about the story!

    B – I was quite surprised I didn’t have that reaction. It really may just be where I live now. I actually get excited to see people in Birkenstocks. (Sigh. WHAT HAVE I BECOME??)

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