Sunday, December 30, 2012
Review of 'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed. That is a complete sentence ... with a subject and a verb. It is also both the adopted name of, and a self-avowed characterization of the author of ‘Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’.
'Wild' is not so much a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as it is an autobiography, using the vehicle of a hike, with ample flashbacks, to tell the story of the unraveling of Cheryl’s life following her mother’s sudden death. And the hike was not so much a hike as it was a retreat, allowing her time for ample reflection to begin to repair that life.
‘Wild’ was selected by Oprah Winfrey as the first featured book for her re-launched book club 2.0. As a result the book quickly catapulted to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list in July 2012.
‘Wild’ is a book about a tough woman doing a very tough thing, written for women who want to be tough, or at least to feel tough vicariously. It’s not for men, and it is definitely not a book to give a hiker who wants to learn about long distance hiking, or about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). It’s a carefully crafted story, and most of it does not even take place on the PCT. Cheryl hiked pieces of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, skipped the High Sierras because of heavy snow cover, and bypassed several other smaller sections. Her actual trail descriptions are well-done prose, but for the most part they are generic – the kind of stuff you find yourself wanting to skim through quickly.
Again, the book isn’t really about the hike. The most memorable part of the book for me took place a year or so before her hike began. Presented in the vivid detail that is her style, it is a description of the shooting of a horse. It made me cry uncontrollably. This was even more heart-tugging than the prolonged and agonizing description of the death of Cheryl’s mother, which just made me a bit misty. More on her mother in a moment …
Despite the accolades, I didn’t like 'Wild' very much. It really is targeted to women—a shrewd marketing choice, since polls show that women read more than twice as many books as men these days. Women writing stories for women about women-with-grit sells big. (That’s rather disheartening for me as a man writing a book about a man [Eden's Womb]).
But more important than the gender bias is the fact that I just don’t like Cheryl Strayed as a person. I can’t look at a photo of her without cringing – those eyes just creep me out. When I read ‘Outlander’ I had the same reaction to its author Diana Gabaldon, though for different reasons. And I’ve had the same negative reaction to a few male authors, notably Isaac Asimov.
Personality of the author is something that matters to me. I sense it in their prose on many levels from subtle style cues and references to choices of emphasis and subject matter in individual scenes. Strayed is fundamentally a slut and a mental cripple, permanently damaged by her mother and the life her mother lived. As a result, she’s a ‘one trick pony’ when it comes to writing, or at least she has been so far. She burst on the literary scene with her debut novel ‘Torch’ which is a thinly veiled recapitulation of her personal trauma at the death of the mother on whom she was (and remains) cripplingly dependent. And ‘Wild’ is little more than a variation on the theme. Her mother’s life, death, and cloying presence permeates the story. Cheryl's hike was an attempt to force direction into her out-of-control physical life, and that succeeded, at least superficially. But the text of ‘Wild’ is testament to the fact that she’s still as dependent on the cancerous relationship with her mother as she has ever been.