Book review: Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”

(*Disclaimer: This gets a little defensive of the nonfiction genre. I tried to not. But fuck it, I do what I want.)

Mid-month I finally got around to reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d been hearing wonderful things about it over the summer and fall of 2012, and my only regret is not picking it up before Oprah slapped her book club sticker on it. (I know, I know, a dumb reason to get uppity, but I’m weird about stuff like that. Hype around something often scares me away. [For the record, I think Oprah does a lot of positive things. I’m just not a fan of her book club.])

Oprah-sticker-free

Oprah-sticker-free

I’ve been going back and forth on the whole print vs. e-book; I have a Kindle Fire and a Kindle e-reader, the latter of which hasn’t seen much use since I got the Fire last year. But in June I picked up the paperback of Strayed’s book, determined to take notes in the margins while I read.

(Can you tell I sorely miss grad school? I gave myself homework!)

In the last year or so I’ve tried to be on Goodreads often, both to explore book recommendations and to archive the books I’ve read and own. I’ve also tried to be better about writing and posting reviews for the books I read, though I think to this day, after a year or more of being on Goodreads, I’ve only written two. One was for Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? The other: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

For me to have written anything about these books instead of just assigning stars with a simple click of a mouse shows how invested I am in them. But while Bechdel’s reviews are largely glowing, Strayed’s are extremely varied.

Now, I’m fine with people not liking a book I enjoy. There are LOTS of books that others enjoy that I just cannot get into. (Take, for instance, the Twilight series, or [and this catches me lots of flak] The Life of Pi.) There have been several times that I’ve read a memoir or essay collection where my first compulsion was to judge the narrator, but even if as a whole I’m lukewarm on a book, I am still able to put that aside and dig something positive or thought-provoking from the experiences.

But the less-than-positive reviews on Goodreads for Wild really got to me. It wasn’t so much that there were people out there who didn’t share my affection for Strayed’s memoir. It was the vitriol some readers heaped upon the narrator, and, worse, the genre I hold so dearly. For example:

+ What kind of dimwit would decide to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail alone with zero backpacking experience? Apparently the same kind of dimwit who would try heroin just because the stranger she spent the night with happens to need a fix.

+ Her mom died and I feel super bad about that. But I couldnt really follow Cheryl on her journey because I just can’t connect with a half ass femme-Nazi.

+ Instead of being simply grateful that she had ever had such warmth, kindness and compassion at all, she instead behaves like a spoiled, pampered brat. Instead of being grateful that her exhusband Paul seems like a total saint, she writes about how lonely she is, how sad she is that she destroyed her marriage, etc. She’s lucky to have had Paul in her life, luckier that he’s willing to stay “best friends” with her after her hurtful actions. 

Reading through some of the reviews, it was all I could do to not leap to narrator-Cheryl’s defense. In a way, though, I suppose I did, because I wrote a review of my own.

I had to wonder if I wasn’t just defensive of the book because I liked it. That I did want others to like it because I did. I wanted them to see in it what I saw, to put aside their personal feelings for the narrator and actually pay attention to the growth that happened on and off the pages of Wild. I think by attacking and judging the narrator for her actions, readers are completely missing the point of the journey. It’s not to excuse or forgive past transgressions: it’s to leave behind an identity the narrator never imagined for herself and find who she is supposed to be in the wake of unimaginable loss and grief.

I could’ve left it at that. And on my Goodreads review, I did.

But then I saw this:

+ A self-absorbed, ill-prepared woman, 26 years old, leaves her husband (a decent guy) for no good reason, mucks her life up even further with drugs and reckless sex, then engages in some vacuous navel-gazing on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

And the response:

+ It’s supposed to be self-absorbed, that’s what a memoir is.

Um. No.

My invaluable experience during my creative writing MA left me banging my head against the wall. I take huge issue with this exchange. I tried to talk myself out of it; after all, memoir is self-absorbed in the sense that it is about the self in terms of thought, interest, and activity. But I have never encountered a situation where the connotation behind the term “self-absorbed” was positive. To call someone self-absorbed is, in my understanding, not a compliment.

So then I went back to my initial reaction, and I’m addressing it here.

In defense of the genre, memoir is not supposed to be self-absorbed (and, in case you didn’t get the memo, I don’t believe Wild is). Memoir is insightful, thought-provoking, and a way to not only make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us, but also to understand the truth of the world we live in. It’s not navel-gazing to want to do either of these things. It’s not self-absorbed to engage in the pursuit of self-knowledge. That the story happens to be centered around the narrator is inconsequential. Any story that could be told has already been written. But writing – good writing – takes the story that’s been told a thousand times and tells it in a different way. And memoir – good memoir – isn’t self-absorbed. Good memoir makes you think about your own life as you read, makes you wonder about the ways you’ve fallen off and scrambled for a new path, even as you’re reading about a woman watching helpless as one of her hiking boots bounces off the edge of a cliff and falls, never to be seen again, into the wilderness below.

Strayed is not the first woman to lose her mother at a young age, and she won’t be the last. But Strayed’s story is her own, and even though I had little in common with the narrator who was presented to me in Wild, I learned a lot from her emotional and physical travels. I felt for her and worried for her, I invested in her failures and triumphs, and to me, that makes Wild – and creative nonfiction – a success.

If memoir makes you angry, makes you accuse writers/narrators of navel-gazing and being self-absorbed, compels you to insult the writer/narrator for his or her decisions, then perhaps you aren’t paying attention. And perhaps you don’t belong in the genre.

As for me, I’m keeping my eyes wide open and devouring the genre one book at a time.

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