Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reflections on Wild, From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Forest not far from the Pacific Crest Trail by Mt. Jefferson, Oregon.
I've been reading more and more books lately outside my "comfort zone," but I began reading this book by Cheryl Strayed thinking it would be a work I could really enjoy.  My interest was really piqued by the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) reference.  I've hiked off and on over the years (more off than on lately, but I am getting back to it), and that includes the PCT around and about Mt. Rainier in Washington State.  I enjoy books on nature as well as spiritual journeys, so I imagined this book to be right up my alley; I was wrong.

Initially, I was deeply taken by the book.  In particular, I found its writing to have an unusually strong and unique narrative voice.  (Early on in the reading, I even made an attempt or two to contact its author who lives just an hour north of us.)  The love affair with the book wasn't to last long, however.  Some important issues got into the way: namely the author's lifestyle and the way in which she glorified it in her writing.

Lost is really more like an autobiographical snapshot than anything else, and it's the non-fiction classification which presents one of the few writing quality criticisms.  Non-fiction would seem to imply a book is without fiction, but I am profoundly skeptical that Cheryl Strayed truly recorded the order and nature of her wandering mind with such meticulous care while engaged in such a difficult physical endeavor.  The level of details, as well as seamless weaving of the flashbacks into the account, all read more like a work of fiction than non-fiction.

It takes a great deal of effort to record experiences accurately along the trail.  Even on a day hike, this can be a challenge to do well.  There is little mention of her taking notes or journaling daily.  There is also little  reference to her efforts to photograph her surroundings--which might have helped explain the rich level of recollection and the details.

While I am skeptical of the factual accuracy of her account at times, many reading this likely couldn't care less.  Does embellishment in non-fiction matter?  As an author, I believe it does.  Yes, there is probably a certain degree of creative exposition in much of the non-fiction market.  The good non-fiction author, however, usually will identify it as such--Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is a case-in-point.  

Similar to my criticism of Tracie McMillan's recent book, my problem with Cheryl Strayed's approach to non-fiction is that it seems to be hard to pick out what's true and what is likely an embellishment. When important dimensions of the novel are placed in question, the rest of the work also is cast into a different light.  Strangely, a related problem with the work is a little harder to articulate.  In simple terms, "a sense of place" seems to be conveyed infrequently. This may seem contradictory because of the above comments on the level of details...but sense of place goes beyond the factual details present in a work.  My problem, I think, rests on the author's narcissistic and constant inward gaze into herself.  This myopic view tends to create an inconsistent sense of place for the reader.  

This introspective and bare honest narrative seems almost confessional at first.  Perhaps as a Catholic, that's why I initially found it somewhat appealing.  The problem, though, is that it's confession for the sake of confession and not for the sake of forgiveness or redemption.  When confession is divorced from seeking forgiveness or embracing positive change, then it's nothing more than tell-all sensationalism.  It's indeed hard to believe this misguided author enjoys reading Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor; perhaps she is a follower of the Church Without Christ.

I suppose it's that tell all approach that really is troubling.  Let's just say there is too much information (TMI!) here.  From her menstrual and masturbation observations to shooting up heroin and lewd sexual behavior on a public beach at Brookings, Oregon during daylight hours, she details a life in serious need of repair.  In fact, let's talk about that beach item a bit more, because the lack of shame in this author's account reveals a particularly deplorable character.

Son playing on Brookings, Oregon beach.
You see the photo to the left?  This photo was taken years ago as we as a family enjoyed the public beach on the south end of the town of Brookings, situated on the southern Oregon coast.  Based on Cheryl Strayed's descriptions, this could be the same beach--the same rock--on which she and her companion engaged in lewd public behavior.  Why is this sort of behavior praised by other book reviewers and promoters--like Oprah?  Is this behavior that we find acceptable as parents and concerned citizens?  

In short, Lost's author details a journey that could spark redemption and change in her life's direction; perhaps it has had a positive effect in the end.  As a reader, though, all that she seems interested in is sensationalizing her escapades in the guise of a confession--but without a meaningful expression of guilt or desire to change at her core.  It's an account that ultimately seems devoid of true depth of character, and it mistakes physical strength for inner strength.  It embraces the culture of me at the expense of real truth and spiritual answers.  

Moral relativism may be popular with the culture at large--and apparently to the Oprah crowd--but serious readers recognize that it is a lie.  Abortion, drug abuse, sexual immorality, and anger at the past people in her life are an abyss that this traveler doesn't seem to confront so much as try to wish away.    It makes the reader hope for the best for her...but be all too grateful to let the book itself become lost.


  1. Hello there! Do you own any journalism education or it is a pure natural talent of yours? Can't wait to see your reply.

  2. "Own" is an interesting word choice! Not too much: mostly English with a dash of broadcasting. You know what Hemmingway said about journalism... :)