Into Thin Air

By Jon Krakauer

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I don’t know how to feel about ‘Into Thin Air’.

‘Into Thin Air’ is Jon Krakauer’s memoir of the 1996 attempt on Everest which resulted in the deaths of five climbers. Krakauer, who is an experienced climber and mountaineer, was commissioned by Outside magazine to write a piece on a guided summit. He went up with a company called Adventure Consultants, led by celebrated climber and guide Rob Hall. During their summit attempt, they were surprised by a blizzard. Ultimately, four members of the Adventure Consultants group perished on the mountain, as well as the lead of another climbing service, Scott Fischer. Fischer was also a famous mountaineer and he ran a company called Mountain Madness.

Krakauer’s role in the disaster is complicated, about which fact he is very forthright. He was a customer, not a guide, and so not responsible for the lives on that climb. However, in his hypoxic state, he wrongly ID’ed another climber and asserted that the man had made it safely back to camp. This turned out not to be true, and that other climber died, a fact for which Krakauer holds himself partly responsible.

It’s natural, when a disaster happens, to look for someone to blame. Krakauer avoids doing this outright, which is admirable, I think. He steadfastly insists that everyone associated with both climber-led expeditions was on the mountain with the best of intentions, and that the intense conditions and lack of oxygen on top of the mountain compromise anyone’s ability to make decisions.

On the other hand, he does spend a significant portion of time making sidewise, blame-y comments along the lines of: “It’s hard to know why such an experienced guide would make such an irresponsible decision”, “We can only speculate about why he decided to ignore the turn-around time. Whatever his reasons, the results were catastrophic.” Those comments may technically be blameless, but they are also judgmental. They leave the reader with the distinct impression that Krakauer has opinions, if not about who is to blame, then at least about who made the situation worse.

And by the way, that might be OK: he was there, he’s allowed to have opinions about something that happened to him. The difficulty comes from the fact that his memoir has become, in the popular imagination, a matter of fact*. It was huge bestseller; it was adapted into a movie. Krakauer’s authorial skill and confidence have ensured that his account is the account.

*It is worth noting that several other members of the two expeditions also wrote memoirs, but none of them achieved the popularity or staying power of Krakauer’s.

Jon Krakauer

And that might be a problem, because a convincing narrator is not necessarily an honest one, or even an accurate one. I do not mean to imply either that Krakauer is wrong or lying – I only mean that I cannot tell whether or not he is. And because he is such a good storyteller, I get caught up in the narrative and forget to think critically.

Krakauer is both a great narrator AND a convincing witness, and that is a powerful and dangerous combination. He delivers his tale with confidence, clarity, and excellent pacing, while infusing it with a first person perspective that is characterized by humility and self-examination.

It’s a really winning combination. The story itself is deeply compelling already – Krakauer’s writing craft turns it into a page turner, which begs the question: should it be?

I’ll admit it: I really liked ‘Into Thin Air’, both times I’ve read it. I think it’s a fabulous book: it’s well-written, it does a excellent job explaining and clarifying, and the story it tells is absolutely gripping. I am not a huge one for stories of men in the wilderness, but ‘Into Thin Air’ is incredibly entertaining.

And I’m not faulting Krakauer, at all. On the contrary, I would consider myself a Krakauer fan. I’ve read multiple of his books; I’ve enjoyed and admired everything of his that I have ever read. He belongs to that category of author who, when I see their name on a book, it makes me way more likely to read it.

But I read Krakauer like he’s a novelist: all my critical faculties go to sleep, I get lost in the story and just go with the flow. It’s fun that way, and he has the strength to carry you along. But he’s not a novelist – he’s a reporter, and a memoirist. We ought, surely, to be applying the same critical lens to his writing that we would to a newspaper piece.

Or maybe not. I might be overthinking it: maybe ‘Into Thin Air’ is a story, a book meant to entertain me. Yes, it technically happened to some people, but it didn’t happen to me, and the truth is that I will never know what happened on the top of that mountain. Perhaps I can relax my attachment to reality and just enjoy a book.

That is a real possibility, by the way: that I ought to just relax. It’s ok to just be entertained sometimes – not everything needs to be distilled for Meaning. I don’t need to tie myself in knots trying to figure out how to responsibly enjoy a first-person narrative.

I have no personal stake in how accurate ‘Into Thin Air’ is, whether Krakauer is fair or right or not. That is unknown and unknowable to me. In fact, I don’t really care how accurate it is, and that is precisely what worries me. I have been lulled into critical suspension, persuaded to just go with the flow and be entertained.

But I do think that there is a difference, in this regard, between fiction and non-fiction. As compelling a book as ‘Into Thin Air’ is, simply from a plot perspective, it describes a real event that happened to real people. We may forget facts, but we remember stories, and when something is memorable and compelling, we are more likely to remember it. Over time, it becomes true for us, whether or not it should be. So, in my opinion, we have a responsibility to pay attention when facts are presented to us as story. And ‘Into Thin Air’ is the ultimate facts-as-story book.

Maybe I’m just trying to remind myself that it is OK to love a story while still reading it with one eye open. I don’t have to solve everything. ‘Into Thin Air’ is a great read. It’s a really good book, whether or not it’s a True Story. Perhaps that’s enough.

The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux

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I don’t think I’ve ever written about a travel book here.

Which is not to say that I don’t read travel books – I do, and I really love some. But, as a genre, travel writing is tricky – there are many potential pitfalls, and the genre itself only appeals to a small percentage of readers. This is understandable to me: if you don’t care about travel, then why read about someone else doing it? And if you do care about travel, why would you read about someone else doing it when you could simply do it yourself?

There is the additional problem that “travel writing” has changed dramatically with the advent of travel blogs. And, look, the genre wasn’t perfect before: it was almost exclusively cranky white male writers, swerving from place to place, getting drunk and sneering at the locals. There is often a racist tinge to the observations made (if not forthrightly expressed racism), and many travel books are really just glorified memoirs of middle-aged ennui.

But the genre has not been helped in any way, shape, or form by the proliferation of the modern travel blog, which is as execrable a form as I’ve ever encountered. If the classics of travel writing are navel-gazing memoirs of aging white guys, the travel blog is the fatuous spewing of indiscriminate and totally uncredentialed millennials: people too insubstantial to hold a job, paid by the Instagram post, gushing patronizing about local color and custom with a tone so condescending that it is barely less racist than the older prose model. All, also, white.

So, ok, I don’t write about travel writing. But I would like to talk today about one book – really, one author – because I love him. And I don’t love him because he’s perfect, or because he doesn’t fall into any of the traps of his genre (he does). I love him because he is mean.

Paul Theroux, I believe, identifies primarily as a novelist, but he is more famous as a travel writer (indeed, he perhaps the most famous travel writer alive). He has published something like twenty travel books in his life. I have not read them all, but I have read a substantial fraction. They possess a certain uniformity: Theroux meanders from place to place, all over the world, peering around him with his gimlet eye, often grouchy but occasionally enchanted, always alone and yet somehow unendingly entangled with the locals.

I’ve loved Theroux since I read ‘Riding the Iron Rooster‘ when I was a teenager. That book changed my life – it is why I went to Asia for the first time. It is why I took the Trans-Siberian – it is why, when I went to China, I took trains between cities, and not planes. ‘The Great Railway Bazaar‘ is about a different journey Theroux took by train through Asia in the early 1970’s. And perhaps that doesn’t sound promising to you – I’m the wrong person to ask: I love Asia, I love trains, and I love mean people.

And Theroux is wonderfully mean. But not in a directed, hostile, agentive way – rather, he is casually, undogmatically malicious, and I love that about him. There is something deeply honest about his descriptions of the world: Theroux would never pretend to love a place to promote it on Insta. Much of the world is shitty – ugly places inhabited by cretinous individuals – and he calls it so. This willingness to snipe has two effects: 1. When he says something is wonderful, I believe him; and 2. His writing is funny in the way only meanness can be.

I can hear people howling that watching a white guy wander around the world being mean about everything isn’t amusing or wonderful. Fair enough – but let me try to explain. Meanness, like anything sharp, must be handled with care, but it is not without its uses and benefits. The truth is, every society has its nastinesses, its ridiculousness, pettinesses and absurdities, individual and yet universal. And if we don’t acknowledge them, it doesn’t mean anything when we praise what isn’t nasty, ridiculous, petty or absurd. Meanness can be gratuitous, but it can also be honest, and it takes a steady hand to navigate the difference.

Let me see if I can provide a few examples.

In Siberia:

“Bruce and Jeff, the Australians in the upper bunks, were nervous about going to Siberia. Anders, a young Swede carbuncular, with one of those unthawed Scandinavian faces that speaks of sexual smugness and a famished imagination, was in the bunk opposite. He listened to the Australians, and when he said, “Hey, I hear it’s cold in Siberia,” I knew it would be a rough crossing.” (p. 304)

On Vietnam:

Paul Theroux (a long time ago)

“There were really two selling points, the beaches and the war. But the war was still on, in spite of the fact that nowhere in the forty-four-page booklet entitled Visit Viet-Nam was fighting mentioned, except the oblique statement, “English is making rapid progress under the pressure of contemporary events,'” (p. 244)

Or perhaps my favorite single observation in the entire book:

“‘I am in Istanbul two years before,’ said the French woman, wincing in the way the French do before lapsing into their own language.” (p. 11)

Theroux, after all these years, has a very steady hand. He is mean, but without anger. He has contempt not for whole cultures or peoples, but for individual small and stupid people within them, and for the havoc they wreak on the world. And the world itself he overwhelmingly finds fascinating, broad and surprising.

I don’t think Theroux is a cruel man – these are not cruel quotes. Rather, he has a gift for spotting and summarizing the absurd. He is a hard-minded man who has found an unusual balance between curiosity and skepticism. I don’t think I would love someone who was just cruel. And Theroux is much too dedicated a traveller to be motivated entirely, or even primarily, by animus. He is as dedicated and brave a traveller as there is – no one wanders so long, so far, just to meet people upon whom they look down.

I wanted to write about Theroux’s travel books at least once, here, because I am grateful to him, in the way that I am grateful to all authors who have changed my life. He made the world bigger for me, and he made me laugh, and I’d like to thank him.