cheryl strayed’s “wild”
My desire to let Cheryl Strayed go in peace is almost as strong as my desire to record my own reactions to her book. Almost as strong.
But let’s get a few things clear, first:
1) She makes money selling mugs that say write like a motherfucker. This is the kind of bullshit advice that will never go out of style, because it is so meaningless. Lots of people write like motherfuckers, even though none of it is usable or good. Crazy people, too.
2) She writes an advice column which is, basically, an advice column, except she swears a lot. (See “motherfucker,” above.) She writes, in her most recent column, that if the reader takes her advice, they will “feel a fuck of a lot better.” It’s a lame gimmick, but OK, Ms. Strayed, let’s fucking do this goddamn thing.
3) This memoir of hers, Wild, is way out-of-date, and gives REI a lot of free advertising and publicity. REI exists to sell questionable goods, a lot of them, to people who don’t know what they are doing. I should know. They sold me $400 worth of essentially unnecessary things, mostly clothing, before I went off to Thailand. I could have gotten by with T-shirts and jeans. (However, I wasn’t on the verge of death either. I was just out some money.)
By “out of date,” I mean that the events in the book happened during the OJ Simpson trial. The book is being published now because, I suspect, the publishers saw something that would be devoured by the same demographic that ate up Eat Pray Love.
I have respect for Elizabeth Gilbert, actually. She did something that a certain type of man has been doing for ages. She “finds herself.” That means divorcing her husband, sleeping with a soulful young dude, going to Italy, sleeping with beautiful Italians, going to India and forgiving everyone in her life (this is very do-able since the only person wronging anyone is her), and then going to Bali and embarking on a new romance. It’s not very deep, but it obeys the pleasure principle.
As it happens, I also respect Christopher McCandless, the anti-hero of Into The Wild. McCandless stood for something. It may have been trite, and he may have gone about his rebellion in an immature way, but he wasn’t merely trying to find himself. He was trying to escape society. He just got in over his head when he took the revolution to Alaska.
Strayed combines the worst of McCandless with the worst of Gilbert. Like Gilbert, she has no cause greater than herself. Like McCandless, she has no fucking idea what she is doing. It is excruciatingly boring to read her descriptions of running short on cash. She had a job. She decided when to quit. It’s her own fault that she can’t afford soft drinks or new boots.
It gets worse. She doesn’t know that foxes aren’t dangerous unless they’re rabid. (In fact, I seriously doubt that she even knows what a rabid animal looks like.) She doesn’t know how to select hiking boots that fit properly. I’ve gone backpacking many times, and I’ve never had my toenails blacken and fall off. She doesn’t know how to use a fucking compass.
I realize that I was very lucky to grow up in a wild part of the country. I’ve camped in Lassen Volcanic National Park and in the shadow of Mount Shasta. I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone who didn’t grow up that way should keep out…but there’s nothing dramatic about self-inflicted crisis. I could wake up tomorrow, empty seven dollars in quarters into my pockets, and try to walk to Reno. It would be perilous. I could easily die. But it wouldn’t make a great story, and neither does Wild.
Plus, from reading the book reviews, you’d think Wild is just about hiking, when in fact half of it is about all the dysfunctional behaviors that push her to go hiking in the first place. She becomes a junkie. She’s a sex addict (like most people, I only half-believe in sex addiction, but she obviously does believe in it). She’s self-centered, dependent, and cynical. The reasons for all of this are that her father abused her and her mother was poor.
Wild is the most self-aggrandizing tale of trauma that I’ve read in many years. Yes, it’s horrible to suffer abuse and poverty, but that does not explain or excuse every single unethical act an adult chooses to perform. People who think it does become abusers themselves. Has Strayed ever met a junkie or an adulterer who didn’t have a sob story? I certainly never have.
Furthermore, most of the people in this story are extremely benevolent. She must realize this, but she’s still not above pretending that a stranger is menacing to keep a chapter humming along. OH MY GOD, IS HE GOING TO RAPE HER? (No. He’s going to share his licorice.)
Because she has such a confused idea of other people, and such a simple narrative explaining herself, the reader doesn’t really come to understand her or anyone in her circle. Sure, we can project all sorts of personal hurts and triumphs onto her story, but we’re not learning anything.
There are some delightful encounters woven into the narrative, and I’m enjoying her descriptions of the natural landscape and her increasingly tough body. But if her goal was to write like a motherfucker, she was a little too successful here. Maybe, Sugar Strayed, it’s time to write like something else.