Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ex Libris: Wild and Freedom

These days, when I get excited enough about a book that I finish it off in a few sittings, that's enough cause for happiness to merit a blog post, and so in this one I'll be discussing two books that did just that -- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen -- even though each is only tangentially related to the topics celebrated here: birds, birds, and once in a while, a few words about birds. Oh, and also a bit about nature.

Wild details three months in the life of Cheryl Strayed, during which she hiked, mostly by herself, about a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was only after I finished the book and read a few reader reviews on Amazon that I realized that Strayed and her book had become quite the media event, being featured on Oprah and etc.

I can see why Wild has made such a public splash; it has all the marks of a bestseller, both good and bad. The good: it's a quick, engaging read, with lots of emotional angst and feel-good moments; it's reasonably well written and smart enough not to seem like a waste of time; it's accessible and creates a nice feel of immediacy and doesn't demand too much from the attention. The bad: it's a bit too self-involved and ultimately a tad shallow. Strayed was in a bad place in her life, and went for a walk to sort it all out. At the end of the walk she felt better. Granted, it was one hell of a hike.

Ultimately, like the much more nuanced Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, Wild is a book about grief. After losing her mother to cancer in her early twenties, Strayed falls into a pit so dark and ferocious and self-destructive that after a few years, the one thread of hope she manages to cling to is the impulse to spend a summer walking the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from the Mexican border up to the Canada. And she wants to do it alone. With just about no planning or practice beforehand. Seriously, it's a miracle she survives.

But she does...step by step, blister by blister, meeting an interesting host of characters along the way, and by the end of it, she has managed to find a bit more peace in her life. There were actually many things that I enjoyed about this book, such as her descriptions of hiking. Although I've never backpacked, I do love a long trail, and yet...somewhere between the middle and the end, there's often a stretch where one is just kind of, for lack of a better word, miserable. Thirsty, sweaty, tired, achy, and longing for an icy cold margarita, only there is no margarita, just tepid water and not enough of that! And yet, the very next day, I want to do it all over again. Wild captures that contradiction perfectly.

Another thing I liked was the feeling of being young in the mid-1990s described in the book. It turns out that Strayed and I are just one year in age difference, and although the errors of my feckless youth were different than hers, I really enjoyed the "blast from the past" feeling of recognizing a certain generation intersecting with a moment in time. (It probably helps that I spent some of my youth on the West Coast, listening to alternative rock and hanging out with some interesting characters.) If Strayed and I had met back then, I think we would have enjoyed hanging out together.

The final item that really stands out is how benevolent the world of Wild is. Of the scores of people that Strayed encounters, most are kind to her or at least indifferent; only a couple seem threatening. Even nature seems to forgive her errors, leaving her unmauled and unmolested by bears, snakes, mountain lions and the elements. This, too, resonates with my own experience. I hike alone a lot. I have encountered snakes, alligators, bears, and, most unpredictable of all, other humans, and my life has only been made the richer for it. Too many people live in fear of going out and having new experiences and seeing what's out there. Those people should read Wild. True, in many ways, Strayed was lucky. But that kind of luck is not really uncommon.

And finally: this book made me want to backpack somewhere, preferably the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you're hoping for real nature writing or tales of rugged survival or spiritual insights, this is not your book. It's no Desert Solitaire or Into Thin Air or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It's neither as funny or as self-important as Bill Bryson's account of the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, although Bryson's book made me not want to walk the A.T., so perhaps Strayed's is the better one. Actually, it most reminded me of another enjoyable travel memoir by someone of my generation, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. I think it's safe to say that if you like one, you'll enjoy the other.

The other book I've enjoyed recently, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, is quite different. For one thing, it's a long, dense work of fiction, much broader in scope and less generous of heart, and rather than hiking towards a place of fulfillment, the characters of Freedom seem to sink ever further from it. It also seems more the work of the generation before mine, the "boomers" rather than Gen X. Generalizations are, if anything, more odious than comparisons, but at least as far as film and literature are concerned, it seems that the hopes of once-idealistic (now materialistic) "boomers" exist only to be dashed upon the rocks, whereas Gen X always knew that reality bites.

But anyway, on to Freedom. I actually checked it out of the library because there was a cerulean warbler on the cover, which, as bird-lovers might know, is a species in swift decline due to habitat loss, mostly because its home in the Appalachians is being blown sky high by mountaintop removal mining. I knew that the novel had been a big hoo-hah when it came out and won several awards, but what's up with the warbler?

I'm glad you asked. The warbler represents the crashing and burning of one of the principle characters, and the frustration of another.... But I'm getting ahead of myself. (A few mild spoilers might be contained in the next three paragraphs.)

Freedom is the stagnation and corruption, in microcosm, of a certain sector of American society: those who have money, and a certain amount of status, and who once had hopes for a meaningful life. The novel centers around Walter and Patty Berglund, he a lawyer who defends social and environmental causes, she a former star basketball player become champion stay at home mom. To his misfortune, Walter also has a punk rocker friend named Richard Katz. Actually, back in their college days Patty had lusted after Katz but taken up with poor noble Walter instead, since Katz was a cad. And Walter was always so self-sacrificing, from his mistreated childhood onwards, but of course, who wouldn't be waiting to go off the rails after a few decades like that?

Enter the warbler. As Patty dotes on their ever-more-estranged son Joey (who later becomes -- horrors! -- a Republican) and drinks herself into a caricature, Walter somehow gets involved with a shady big business supported trust to save cerulean warblers by blowing their breeding grounds to smithereens, and then declaring the rubble left behind a Warbler Park. To his credit, his conscience won't keep this up indefinitely, boiling over into a humans-are-a-cancer-on-the-planet type speech that Derrick Jensen might be proud of.

And then...they are all left to pick up the pieces of their misguided lives. Each has wandered far from what they first aspired to be; can they possibly find their way back? And after such emotional damage inflicted on the others, is their hope of reconciliation? One question that I had, as a reader, was about the last part...where Walter holes up in Nameless Lake and wages war against the free-roaming cats and the eventual happy ending. Was that "real"...or was it a story told by Patty at Richard's suggestion? If you've read the book, let me know what you thought.

Things I liked: the book kept me turning the pages. Although it is almost 600 pages in length, I finished it in a weekend. And then I thought about it. I read some reviews, some adulating the novel, and some excoriating it. Was it an example of great American fiction, or a work of manipulative trash, forcing cardboard characters through their paces in order to make a social and environmental point? Can I say that I thought it was both at once?

Anything that keeps one thinking and questioning long after the last word has been read has some merit, in my opinion. And I did find that the plight of the characters, the way they ultimately disappointed themselves and each other, was a valid reflection of a certain sector of American life. I was most reminded of the movie (also celebrated when it came out, yet ultimately hollow and heavy-handed), American Beauty. Different plots, different metaphors (in one, the Achilles heel being cerulean warblers, in the other, a nubile high school girl), and yet the same condemnation of the suburban dream. Both had characters that didn't quite make sense (a Nature Conservancy guy supporting mountaintop removal? A successful middle aged man choosing to work fast food? In both, the pathetic wife and the cartoonishly disaffected offspring?)

If you liked American Beauty (a film whose ultimate depiction of "beauty" is of a whirling plastic bag), you will probably like Freedom (a novel which shows all the ways in which we aren't free). To be honest, I enjoyed them both, immensely, on the surface. And then, with a bit more reflection, I found them both to be superficial and manipulative.

But on the plus side, Franzen is supposedly a birder, or at least a bird-supporter, and any novel that brings that into the public eye gets at least a shaky thumbs up from me.

Final verdict...both books recommended, but for very different reasons.

1 comment:

  1. "Freedom" sounds like an interesting book. We do so often disappoint ourselves and each other, and hope for redemption. Sounds like it has some rather lame characters, though, such as the wife. "Wild" doesn't tempt me so much, perhaps because it's such a reach for an out-of-shape, timid sort like me to relate to someone who has the courage to hike alone for a thousand miles. May I recommend another book, "Flyaway," by Suzie Gilbert? It's in the same book family as "A Small, Furry Prayer," by Steven Kotler, which I loved! Mom