I picked up Into The Wild at my local library when Shingie asked me about Chris McCandless. She asked me if I had heard about an idealistic college-aged man who became fed up with society and its conformist ways and decided to travel around America but eventually died in Alaska. And you know me – if there’s idealism and a deliberate attempt to subvert social institutions, I’m immediately intrigued.
Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer, follows the life of Chris McCandless, after he abandons a life closely bound to society and material possessions, and begins an odyssey across America as well as his final trek into the Alaskan wild, where he eventually starves and dies.
Though we learn about Chris McCandless through the recounts of others, my take on Into The Wild is that it is not a novel about Chris McCandless or Alex Supertramp, but it is about the lives his intersected with, touched, and moved. What stood out for me was the profound effect Chris/Alex had on the people he meets; throughout the novel, Krakauer interviews various people who describe their time with McCandless. What seems to be a common denominator in his acquaintances, is that they all seemed to care about him. There were some who certainly cared more than others, but they would have all agreed that he was a special individual.
A question I asked myself throughout the book was: why did these people care so much for a stranger? I don’t know if this is because of some hospitality common in the United States, or if it was because Chris McCandless was truly a unique and special individual. And whilst it may be a mix of both, something that compelled me in this novel was McCandless himself. His strong sense of idealism is something that drew me in, and that drive for him to do something about world issues – poverty, race, genocide in Africa – as well as his search for authenticity are characteristics that I really identify with. Sometimes, the search for meaning and authenticity is difficult when materialism and social norms pervade our society – sometimes the latter is necessary, but sometimes they border on the extreme and it feels artificial, arbitrary.
McCandless’s ideals should probe introspection, rather than critique (even if his supposedly plight is that of the privileged white man). What I find interesting is the reactions people have had to his journey and his endeavour to explore and seek meaning that transcends materialism and what we find in the norm. Readers have asserted that McCandless was mentally ill or was naive and foolish. Putting aside whether there is any truth to be found in these speculations, isn’t it interesting how people respond to McCandless’s deviance? It’s like people struggle to understand actions that are beyond the boundary and are acts of deviance but the ‘deviant’ is doing it at their own free will and is conscious of their actions.
Putting aside his privileged background, his conflict and discomfort with society and all things material is something worth thinking about. Personally, I share McCandless’s contempt for modern society (though my own feelings are of a lesser degree), and the powerlessness he felt in society. Setting out into the wild was an attempt to gain mastery of his life. While society is dictated by a set of rules, norms and values, the flip-side is a free-for-all; there are no rules or norms in deviance or non-normative society. People see deviance as a barren wasteland, but McCandless perceived it to be a world full of opportunities without constraints, limitations, and devoid of anyone who could curtail his idealism and life.
Furthermore, McCandless’s contempt for how our lives are structured and prescribed since the day we are born is particularly evident through the accounts of his acquaintances. And this isn’t about the suggestion that McCandless didn’t want to ‘grow up’ – because that’d be a gross misrepresentation of McCandless’s ideas – but McCandless identified something in society that pervades our social life, namely the struggle with capitalism, and entering the conveyor belt that ultimately leads from exploitation to death. What I see in McCandless is a manifestation of a social disease that Marxists call alienation. Not just alienation from our labour, but also alienation from our own lives – to whom do our lives belong to? McCandless tried to ensure that his life would belong to him, and him alone, and that meant relinquishing his ties to society.
Aside from an otherwise interesting book, there were some passages that deviated from the main purpose of the book. Though I can understand the chapters where Krakauer talks about others that decided to forsake society and live in the wild, one particular chapter was dedicated to speculating whether McCandless was sexually active or celibate. And I know that all aspects of McCandless’s life should be fleshed out for the sake of autobiography and understanding the depth of McCandless’s character, but I found this little passage to be… creepy? More so, the chapter where the author talks about his own life were not interesting to me. Krakauer wanted to use himself and his time as a youth to draw parallels between McCandless’s life and his own, but it felt superfluous and the book could have done without it.
Otherwise, I found Into the Wild to be an engaging and compelling read. I felt like I could strongly relate to McCandless’s idealism, and though idealism comes with its faults – sometimes our idealism makes us naive, and although we are conscious of our own naivety – we feel like we have to try regardless. I think it begs the question of what our lives mean – or could mean – if we did things differently, and what it means to live and then die for our ideals and beliefs.
Book Name: Into the Wild
Author: Jon Krakauer
Publisher: Pan Books