A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 22 November 2014

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

“At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realisation of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.”

That’s how I felt by page 50 of Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Could I continue? Was there any point? Couldn’t I be humping a sexy man, any man, instead? Because I was young, I was hot, my mother had died four years ago and I still hadn’t gotten over it. I was a girl of extremes, who leaps into things without thinking. And guess what? I’m hiking the PCT (that’s the Pacific Crest Trail) and I’m young and I’m hot and all the men want me and I love the way that makes me feel and I’m hiking the PCT. I’m hiking the PCT, you know? I’m hiking the PCT and my Mum died. In case you forgot, I’m hiking the PCT. Just thought I’d mention it.

Now you don’t need to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

By page 50 I had an idea that I was going to dislike this book quite intensely, and if I hadn’t been on holiday and I hadn’t been in a perverse frame of mind I’d have probably chucked it onto the ‘to give away’ heap and left it there. But I was on holiday and I was in a perverse frame of mind so I continued. This was not a book for me. I love nature books, I love books about travel, but despite the description this book was neither of those things. The PCT, the Pacific Crest Trail a 2,663m trail running along the West coast of the USA, is merely a backdrop for the story of Cheryl Strayed, a pinion around which she spins out this tale of intense self-absorption. The story follows 26 year old Cheryl who, four years after the death of her mother and disintegration of her family, decides to hike the PCT. It’s not clear why she decides to hike it, but it is clear she has no idea what she’s doing. Consequently she bumbles along the trail, slapstick-style, tripping from disaster to disaster – the loss of her boot, close encounters with dodgy men and bears, the loss of toenails, layers of skin, endless hunger and poverty. It has everything which should add up to an inspiring, life affirming story. Yet somehow it just seems to fall short.

I think the problem is that whilst what she attempted (and achieved, I should add) was extremely admirable, and the place she had come from and the person she became at the end of the story was seemingly a positive arc, very little of this actually came across in the writing. Instead we encounter a young, highly self-absorbed woman who is attracted to extremes: the destruction of her marriage through infidelity, encounters with heroin, meaningless and endless (it seems) sex with men she barely knew, directionless and obsessed with the death of her mother. The trip from the person she ‘was’ to the person she ‘became’ on the PCT isn’t really that much different. Again the decision was rash and unplanned, the goal extreme and dangerous. Perhaps the story should be titled ‘Lucky’ rather than ‘Wild’ (though I think Wild may be an accurate title) as it was luck more so than judgement which allowed Strayed to successfully complete her goal. Luck, and a lot of help from people around her which she does (in part at least) acknowledge. In the course of her journey we learn little about the PCT, little about the towns she visits or the people she encounters, except how they relate to her. This is, perhaps, honest, but in a nature/travel diary it becomes tedious very quickly. There are only so many times you can hear about the state of her feet before it becomes a line (or a paragraph) to skip over.

Perhaps that is my greatest criticism of this book: that whilst the potential and scope of the subject matter is great, it becomes, very quickly, highly repetitive and tedious. That Strayed discovered she could endure, that she could persevere despite difficulties, is a highly admirable thing. That I had to feel the retelling of the story an endurance, not so much. Certain themes repeat themselves endlessly: her mother’s illness and death (and her reaction to it), her dabbling with drugs, her self-destructive cycle (which didn’t seem to have ended on the PCT), that she was hiking the PCT, her injuries, how tiring it was, Snapple lemonade, hunger, sex, men and how she looked. Against a backdrop of the intensely beautiful and soulful California wilderness, I had an expectation that we would encounter more than that. What a shame that considering the journey she had taken, she failed to exit the orbit of herself.

The writing itself also became repetitive and irritating. For example, Strayed has a practice of drawing out points by putting them in a sentence by themselves.

Kind of like this.

Especially at the end of chapters, or where a point of special significance is made. However, after 300 pages of

Highly important points

It’s a bit wearing. Especially as the points were not particularly noteworthy. I also nearly threw the book at the back of the head of the person sitting in front of me on the plane home as she railed against her mother’s death, blaming her mother and stacking up the points in which her mother failed her including (I jest not) saying it was okay to call her by her actual name. If this is the extent to which her mother had failed, I’d say she’d done a pretty fantastic job. Again, it is the self-centredness that really grates my nerves. Perhaps it is a cultural thing, but the good old British stiff-upper-lip would never permit that kind of pathetic self-pity. Snooty condescension, however, is quite permissible.   

Perhaps this is the crux of the problem; perhaps the book was simply culturally wrong for me. I found myself irritated in the extreme with her complaints, her irresponsibility, her failure to observe what was outside of herself, her endless references to her looks and her terrible upbringing (no worse than most experience), the disintegration of her family, her excuses for her behaviour. I didn’t see how the woman at the end of the book was any different to the one at the beginning; it didn’t seem to me that she’d learned anything or changed or developed in any way. Perhaps that is an unfair assessment, but it was my reaction all the same. Given the potential of the story, what she’d achieved, the telling of it fell completely short for me.

It is not a book completely without merit. If you are interested in journeys of self discovery then you may find something worthy in this story. Strayed may have been irritating to me, but she was honest and I think there is a bravery in telling her story the way she did. I suspect that she got more from the PCT than is conveyed in the story, and perhaps that is the real failure of this book.

Wild receives an irritated 4 out of 10 Biis. 

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