Friday, March 01, 2013

Book review: Wild

This interval's book club selection was wild by Pacific Northwest author Cheryl Strayed. The book is Strayed's memoir of her adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the 90s.

It's a very personal story. Strayed recounts how the life she strove to create --that of a strong, independent and successful woman --was shattered through a combination of tragic events and her own personal failings. The death of her free-thinking, extraordinary mother, the dissolution of her happy but unsatisfying marriage, and the rupture of her family left Strayed adrift and aimless. She relates how the PCT gave her an alternative to the self-destructive course on which she found herself in the wake of her myriad disasters.

Despite all the acclaim the book has received, I found it wanting in a number of aspects.

I found the book to be extravagantly self-indulgent. Granted, it is a memoir, and memoirs are, by their nature, introspective. But I felt that Strayed relied too much on the sympathy of her readers.

Everyone knows the devastation that comes with losing a loved one. But I found little that made Cheryl's grief unique. We all lose our mothers. We all grieve. We all find methods (both self-destructive and innovative) to deal with our grief.

After her mother's death, Cheryl spiraled into self-destruction. Common enough. She found her way out of it by putting herself in an alien environment. Heroic, but also common.

Nonetheless, the book could work were it not for Strayed's often belabored and awkward sentences. Try this, for example:
"She still had the ribbons when she died. I packed them in a box that was now in Lisa's basement in Portland. A yellow third for barrel racing, a pink fifth for walk, trot, canter; green for showmanship and participation; and a single blue ribbon for riding her horse through all the gaits smoothly over a course lined with mud pits and tight corners, laughing clowns and blaring horns, while she balanced an egg on a silver spoon in her outstretched hand for longer than anyone else could or did."
Like a mouthful of cotton candy, eh? The illusion of substance melts away to nothing. The book is rife with these unnecessarily long, relatively empty sentences. Strayed seems to eschew the concept of "economy of words." (I lost track of the number of times the phrase "The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1: California" appeared. Strayed not only assigns the phrase as a chapter in the book, but repeats it in its entirety seemingly every other paragraph.)

Further, I found the characters in the book, especially the people Cheryl encounters on the PCT, to be two-dimensional and largely interchangeable. I couldn't keep track of who was whom. None of them had anything that stood him apart from any of the others. Strayed describes them only in terms of how they affect her, not as individuals enduring their own struggles and doubts. As I said, this book is self-indulgent.

There was an overall lack of imagery, which for a recounting of a PCT hike, is befuddling. There are precious few descriptions of the vistas and forests that surround the trail. And those few that exist are wooden and uninspired. All of which suggests the possibility that Strayed was so wrapped up in her mountain of woe that she couldn't be bothered to even notice the beauty around her.

Generally, I found the narrative to be detached. I had mild sympathy for Cheryl, but I wasn't moved by her trials. I never laughed or cried; I never had any strong feelings at all. It was a mildly interesting recounting of a more or less ordinary personal transition.

Surprisingly, our group discussion of Strayed's work led to the most vociferous debate we've had about books since we formed this group 3 years ago. Perhaps not so surprisingly, I found myself alone in finding the book less than satisfying.

I suppose I'm being rather harsh. I certainly don't want to diminish Strayed's achievement.

It takes considerable wherewithal and determination to write a book (to say nothing of the wherewithal and determination it takes to hike the PCT). And Cheryl Strayed has done both. My hat is off to her for that.

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