Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's name is no accident. At twenty-six years old, she has lost both father and mother, ended her marriage with her deliberately self-destructive habits, and struggled with the siren call of heroin. When she sets foot on the Pacific Crest Trail for the first time, she is nothing more than a stray.

Cheryl believes that hiking the PCT--from California through the Mojave Desert and across the Sierra Nevada into Washington State--will bring her insight and peace. But this stray has nothing but an oversized backpack, an outdated trail map, and determination to carry her forward. The kindness of her fellow hikers on the trail helps her onward, but not as much as Cheryl's hope.


3 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)
Oh boy! A new memoir!

That was my thought, at least, when I saw Cheryl Strayed's Wild on a friend's desk. (Perhaps not everyone takes the same relish in the unfortunate lives of other folks as I do.) The misadventures of a discontented twenty-something mourning the death of her mother with a little impromptu wilderness therapy? It sounded right up my alley.

I quickly learned that Wild reads best when the reader does not attempt to identify with Strayed. It's too stressful sharing headspace with someone who continually makes her own problems worse. In that sense, it's much like Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones, & Butter. I flinched my way through most of the book before learning to just sit back, detach, and enjoy the comedy of errors that is Strayed's grand adventure. One must learn to marvel at the fact that she hasn't (yet) suffered a fatal yet eminently preventable accident, without getting worried that she will on the very next page. Truly, she led a charmed life.

The record Strayed provides is a page-turner, but not a memorable one. All the literary epigrams as chapter headings cannot elevate the story. It lacks either the deep insights or the resounding lines I have taken away with me from other such memoirs. (I did like the self-conscious conflation of "strayed" with "starved" that centers around a common misreading of her nameplate necklace, and how she feeds the finished pages of books she is reading into the fire at night to lighten the weight of her pack.) It is preferable to the posthumous pseudo-memoir of Christopher McCandless in Into The Wild, which follows an otherwise similar arc... but given my thoughts on Into The Wild, that is scarcely high praise.
"We aren't poor," my mother said, again and again. "Because we're rich in love." She would mix food coloring into sugar water and pretend with us that it was a special drink. Sarsaparilla or Orange Crush or lemonade. 
She would spread her arms wide and ask us how much and there would never be an end to the game. She loved us more than all the named things in the world. She was optimistic and serene, except for a few times when she lost her temper and spanked us with a wooden spoon. Or the one time when she screamed FUCK and broke down crying because we wouldn't clean our room. 
She was kindhearted and forgiving, generous and naive. She dated men with names like Killer and Doobie and Motorcycle Dan and one guy named Victor who liked to downhill ski. They would give us five-dollar bills to buy candy from the store so they could be alone in the apartment with our mom. 
"Look both ways," she'd call after us as we fled like a pack of hungry dogs.
Strayed's memories of her mother are the richest part of the book. If this were a fictional novel, I would scold the author for failing to integrate those memories and the associated mourning with the physical journey. As Wild is ostensibly a true recounting, though, I cannot fault Strayed for saying what she experienced: that while hiking the PCT, she was largely too tired, hungry, hot, or cold to ever think about anything but putting one foot in front of the other.

Which is its own form of recovery, to be sure, but Strayed's telling lacks the pithiness that would make the truth rich and lasting rather than simply, blandly true.
I'd imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I'd thought I would weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trail--when spring was on the very cusp of turning officially into summer--because I was so hot I thought my head would explode.
One of the most unexpectedly discordant parts of the book to me was whenever Strayed picked up one of the money caches she had mailed ahead to various waystations. It's hard for me to imagine, as a reader in today's economy, how many luxurious meals Strayed could eat in town on a mere $20. I kept having to remind myself that the events of Wild took place in 1994, a full two decades ago--a very different time financially.

Another strangely jarring element was how safe (from fellow humans) Strayed was on the PCT. Except for in one upsetting scene, the other hikers Strayed encounters are helpful and respectful. I believed that true stories of women traveling the wilderness in safety were lost to bygone eras, but Strayed's narrative proves me otherwise.

That said, that one awful scene of menace contains the greatest lines of the entire memoir:
I could hardly hear my own words for what felt like a great clanging in my head, which was the realization that my whole hike on the PCT could come to this. That no matter how tough or strong or brave I'd been, how comfortable I'd come to be with being alone, I'd also been lucky, and that if my luck ran out now, it would be as if nothing before it had ever existed, that this one evening would annihilate all those brave days.
I have felt that. No amount of deliberate detachment from Strayed's narrative could reduce the hammer-blow of those lines.

Overall, though, Wild is a fun read, but not one for which I would reserve space on my bookshelf. I enjoyed reading it and expect other readers would as well, as a fun diversion from the daily grind. For the memoirs that tell of the heart, though, and echo in one's mind in the dark of night, keep looking.

Thanks Kat for leaving your books lying around to tempt me!

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: animal death by execution, cancer, drug use, threat of sexual assault

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