Top positive review
An intriguing investigation into the wild part of a man's soul
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 2, 2013
NARRATIVE ARC AND PARALLEL STRUCTURE– IN A NON-FICTION NOVEL
When Jon Krakaur wrote an account of the untimely death of a young man who went into the wilds of Alaska with little more than his wits, he was faced with the daunting task of how he would write the story. In this creative non-fiction story, Krakaur used craft techniques that he could use in keeping a reader interested, particularly where most readers would know the ending before the story even began. Krakaur had already reported about Christopher Johnson McCandless’ fateful quest in Outside magazine. McCandless obviously examined the structure of any story, exposition, rising action, crisis, climax and denouncement, or resolution, and began to form how best to tell McCandless’ tragic story. He borrows the narrative arc technique from fiction, and uses parallel structure, interspersing several small stories, each with a different protagonist and antagonist, but with a common theme running through each, that ties the resolution together.
Krakaur’s story has a quasi-linear plot, with characters and setting, rising action, with conflicts and complications, and finally a resolution, where the ultimate question that had plagued the character from the start is resolved—except there are two main characters in this story, a story of layered structure, similar to Emily Bronte’s epic story, Wuthering Heights—McCandless, who, prior to his death finds that true happiness can only be found in sharing it, (Krakaur, 189) and Krakaur himself, who tells the story of his investigation and resolves the mystery of McCandless death that had been plaguing him for some time; poison sweet pea berries actually killed McCandless, not starvation from inexperience; and at the end, the restless look in his eyes was replaced with a look of serenity and peace. (Krakaur, 198-99).
From start to finish, the story is simply about this educated young man from a well-to-do Washington D.C. family who hitchhiked to Alaska in April of 1992, walked into the Alaskan forest with a small caliber hunting rifle, and minimal provisions, and died of what appeared to be starvation after surviving several months in the wild. The readers simply thought McCandless an imprudent, idealist who was ill prepared to meet the challenge. Krakaur wrote, “McCandless was ridiculously ill prepared  he had no business heading into any wilderness … [there was] only one word for the guy: incompetent.” (Krakaur, 177). In researching, and investigating this case for a novel, Krakaur found out differently.
Having been a similar wild youth, Krakaur wanted to show the reader “Why” some men hear the call of the wild, and do things that most others would be satisfied simply dreaming about. McCandless’ story was larger than life, and the perfect vehicle for Krakaur to propound his answer to the question. Although ostensibly about McCandless, this story is Krakaur’s memoir—his memory’s truth, stating: “I was haunted by the particulars of the boy’s starvation and by vague unsettling parallels in his life, and those of my own”(Krakaur, Author’s note, p.2). He uses parallel structure to answer the resolution to an age old question, and the death of one young man—who found out too late, that “Happiness [is] only real when [it’s] shared”. (Krakaur, 189).
In using the stories of various other explorers, including his own, Krakaur proposes his theory, injecting it into the story as a resolution to the question that he poses in the beginning, why would someone want to walk deep into the bush and live off the land for a few months. (Krakaur, 4). Krakaur injects the question again through one of his characters, the boy’s mother, Billie: “I just don’t know why he had to take those kind of chances…” (Krakaur, 132). Thus, the reader is compelled to read on to find the answer, the resolution, that arrived after the death of the boy (climax of the story), and into the denouncement (resolution).
Krakaur begins his story in medias res (Krakaur, 3) and McCandless is dropped off by Gallion, an man with some experience in Alaska, and rising action builds almost immediately from the introduction of these characters where he remarks:
Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in
his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal
for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under
the winter snowpack. Alex’s cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was onl .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he
expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to
eat if he hoped to remain very long in the county. He had no ax, no bug dope,
no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a
tattered state road map he’d scrounged at a gas station. (Krakaur, 5).
This sets up the complications and conflict posed by man against nature, albeit not the main focus of the story. The action continues to rise throughout the author’s creative use of setting as he describes the land McCandless attempts to enter as ominous and remote. He writes: “A hundred miles out of Fairbanks the highway begins to climb into the foothills of the Alaska Range… the Stampede Trail … seldom traveled,  isn’t even marked on most road maps of Alaska… in the middle of trackless wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.” (Krakaur, 5).
The story then jumps back to the preparations made by McCandless prior to his trek into the wild Alaska forest, breaking into the scenes of his troubled stay in the wild, and after describing the details of his short adult life, and death, it follows with Krakaur’s own memoir of not only his investigation (a layered technique) but the parallel story of his own youth, attempting to climb an impossible summit, and the stories of other persons who appeared to be equally imprudent.
Krakaur’s character begins to emerge in Chapter 8, where he examines the criticism he received from readers after the story he wrote about McCandless. “The prevailing Alaska wisdom held that McCandless was simply one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death.” (Krakaur, 72). Krakaur then descends into a series of several parallel stories of other explorers to show the reader why this theory of foolhardy youth is not the case in McCandless’ death. “Dozens of marginal characters have marched off into the Alaska wilds over the years never to reappear. A few have lodged firmly in the state’s collective memory.” (Krakaur, 72). He then tells the stories of counterculture idealists, military leaders, wealthy academics, writers, and photographers, like Rossellini, John Mallon Waterman, Carl McCunn, and Everett Reuss, with varying stories, some similar, others in contrast to McCandless. Reuss wrote: “I shall always be a lone wanderer, of the wilderness. God knows how the trail lures me… the lone trail is the best…I’ll never stop wandering… And when it comes to die, I’ll find the loneliest, most desolate, spot there is.” (Krakaur: Reuss, 91).
But Krakaur recognizes that McCandless was no idealist, no crackpot, nor foolhardy wanderer who took chances with his life, nor failed to appreciate the risks. McCandless writes: “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you are a great man. I now walk into the wild.” (Krakaur, 133-34). Having read the other parallel stories that ended in disaster for most, the reader is now enticed to find out why. It was his own portion of the book that was his memoir, that Krakaur feeds the reader a resolution to the story behind the death of McCandless.
I was twenty three, younger than McCandless, when he walked
into the Alaska bush. My reasoning, if one can call it that, was
enflamed with the scattershot passions of youth and a literary diet
overly rich in the works of Nietzsche, Keroac, and John Menlove Edwards, the later a deeply troubled writer and psychiatrist who,
before putting an end to his life with a cyanide capsule in 1958,
had been one of the preeminent British rock climbers of the day.
Edwards regarded rock climbing as a “Psycho-neurotic tendency”;
he climbed not for sport, but to find refuge from the inner torment
that framed his existence. (Krakauer, 135).
Krakauer allows the reader to draw its own conclusion but only after he sets up these parallel stories to draw the comparison. He further exalts McCandless’ obsession to go into the wilderness as not simply a youthful whim, but much more. He presents the reader with his own Alaskan wilderness story, replete with inner thoughts, and an epiphany, that strongly suggests the resolution the reader should find in the denoument of McCandless’ story. Although the grueling story of Krakauer’s experience to cross treacherous terrain to climb an icy face of Devil’s Thumb, seemed much more dangerous an ordeal than that which McCandless put himself through, the author completes the narrative arc quite effectively by drawing a resolution in parallel story of his feat. Comparing the “skewed relationships” each had with their fathers, the “similar intensity, similar heedlessness, and similar agitation of the soul”, the reader is satisfied that McCandless died from a freakish accident, and was driven to the wilderness not by a death wish but by some deep seated desire to accomplish some impossible feat that would help fix his broken life. (Krakauer, 155). The reader is compelled to believe McCandless, if he survived, would feel the same way as Krakauer, “I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and an appealing innocence, certainly, but I wasn’t suicidal;” and as the parallel story implies, neither was McCandless. (Krakauer,
155). Thus, the narrative arc is complete, with the resolution.
Krakauer, Jon. Into The Wild. Random House. New York. 1996.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
New York. 2010.