When I was reading Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, it spurned some interesting comments from my colleagues. A few of my co-workers had read it. One of them was an outdoorsy type who had climbed Mt Kilmanjaro, and who had also read Into Thin Air, Krakauer's other more famous bestseller. He had to ask me why I was reading it -- because it's not the kind of book he associates with "a girl". That annoyed me a little. Excuse me while I go pick up something more gender-appropriate -- like Gossip Girl.
To idiotic remarks like these, I usually do a one-finger salute in my head.
But there is some gender-play going on in response to Into the Wild. I told some of the girls about Chris McCandless's dream of roughing it in the wild -- how he burned his cash, ditched his car, carried no phone, isolated himself in the Alaskan wilderness and lived off what he could forage or hunt -- and how he finally came to starvation and death.
Agnes's response was just to roll her eyes. With all the wisdom of someone who had to date men, she sighed, "Only a man would do something like that."
The girls laughed, because we get it. It sounds like such a stereotypical machoism that it's boring. We see how stunts like these are often a manifestation of egoism. It does what it wants to, without any regard for those left behind. Only a man would do something like that. No wonder we think women do not read this book.
But in spite of it all, I can see why Into the Wild became a bestseller. The story of Chris McCandless aka Alex Supertramp has this evergreen romantic wanderlust whiff to it. Part of the legend is that so little is really known about McCandless's motives. Everything is a re-construction from his journals, interviews with people who knew him. We guess at his motives, his feelings and his final days.
We loved this boy who went off into the wild and starved to death. We want to be able to do so ourselves, but without the suffering, without the death. Because he died, we get to mythologize him.
I admit while I was reading the story, it struck a chord in me: I recognize within myself the wanderlust, the restlessness, the feeling that things are meaningless unless you are willing to pit yourself against the odds. Krakauer summed up Chris McCandless more eloquently:
McCandless wasn't some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself -- more, in the end, than he could deliver.
We're all trying to find some meaning in our lives. This book attempts to give some significance to McCandless's death, and his attempt to do what a lot of us only dreamed of doing. The restless romantic in me feels for Chris McCandless. I think he's a hero.
But I also find myself echoing the question by Chris's father -- who asked, how is it, "that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain?"