Krakauer’s Successful Tribute to McCandless: Balancing Fiction and Non-Fiction in Literary Journalism
Journalists, and authors of investigative literature, often struggle to keep their writing 100 percent truthful when researching cases with few leads and vague details. Writers tend to teetertotter on the edge of the truth in order to leave readers satisfied with as few questions possible at the end of their work. Although Jon Krakauer’s uses this style of story telling in his narrative account Into the Wild, while using pieces of both, he almost perfectly combines fact and fiction to create an intriguing yet honest tale. Using standard definitions of such complex concepts as non-fiction and “new” journalism, this paper aims to compare Krakauer’s use of fiction and non-fiction in relation to new journalism/literary journalism.
Into the Wild’s fictional elements do not outweigh the true facts stated by Jon Krakauer but are balanced nicely allowing the novel to be classified as a work of new journalism. Fiction is defined as “something invented by the imagination or feigned”, where as non-fiction is “writing or cinema that is about facts or real events” (Webster). These two types of writing are connected in a recently new way of non-fiction writing known as New Journalism or Literary Journalism. New Journalism is “Journalism that features the authors subjective responses to people and events and that often includes fictional techniques meant to illuminate and dramatize those responses” (Webster). As mentioned in the Krakauer’s author’s note at the beginning of his book, he does his best to remain impartial and unbiased, but with a story with so many holes and uncertainties, he had to make many assumptions about real life Chris McCandless’s character, and about the thought process and events that took place. Krakauer gathers his facts by following McCandless’s tracks, meeting and interviewing anyone who new or had seen Chris during his adventure. Through these interviews, Krakauer gained lots of information, but with that developed more questions, forcing Krakauer to improvise and make logical conjectures even as he worked with McCandless’s known traits.
In these respects, Into the Wild combines all the useful, factual information Jon Krakauer gathered and combined it with the ideas and assumptions he created in his head to pour out an engrossing piece of Literary Journalism. This is demonstrated when Krakauer writes “[Chris] probably understood that if he was patient and waited, the river would eventually drop…” (171). This line was created with deductive reasoning in relation to the evidence. As untrue as it could potentially be, including it does not affect or change the events to follow that are true. This use of fiction is entirely acceptable for the genre. On numerous occasions throughout the book, Jon Krakauer reaches to relate McCandless’s life to his own in attempt to understand what he could be thinking. Early in the reading, the author explains the pressure and stress Chris was under by the overbearing control his father had over him. He uses this fact to back up his personal belief that part of Chris’s reason for abandoning society was to escape and experience an extreme form of ‘no pressure’. On page 155 Krakauer explains how he thinks himself and Chris were “similarly affected by the skewed relationships [they] had with [their] fathers”, this quote was said, too, as away of defending his idea that his, and more importantly Chris’s, adventurous spirit was fuelled by their families. This reasoning is only speculation of course, as Krakauer never fails to remind readers that he can’t be certain of what McCandless was thinking, the inclusion of these ideas only keeps readers entertained, and for some, inspired. However, the goal of this novel is not to cause its readers to wonder further about what Chris was thinking and why, it is to answer those already developed questions. Krakauer makes the decision to connect himself to McCandless as a way of giving his readers possible if not definite answers to the gaps in information. He doesn’t want to leave the reader unsatisfied or needing more.
Krakauer’s assumptions don’t only stem from his personal experience. Chris McCandless documented his daily experiences in his journal, the 113 days spent alone in the wilderness. His entries were not long extensive hour by hour descriptions, but often one to ten word shorts. Alongside these, he also wrote his thoughts and ideals in notes inside the books he brought with him. After a long investigation into these entries, Krakauer seems to be trying to find any possible meaning behind even McCandless’s simplest words. In one, “‘HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED’” (189), is written, a quick thought Krakauer gives plenty of attention to. In a way that almost seems to be grasping at straws, due to all the back tracking, Krakauer offers his analysis of this quote. The just of it is that he believes this quote explains Chris came to the realization that societal isolation was not the key to happiness, but other people is what makes something great. He explains that with this Chris would have been wanting to return to the real world and be a little more vulnerable and open. This is an extreme assumption to make with little to no context from McCandless, but like before, Jon is sure to reiterate that this is only his opinion and can not be proven correct or incorrect. These types of not entirely accurate pieces of information are also completely justified. Including ideas like this, especially at such crucial moments of Chris’s journey, shows readers that McCandless may have come to a positive realization. With his death coming so soon after writing this quote, it offers readers comfort in that he did not pass without accomplishing at least one of his goals, finding happiness.
In a way, Krakauer throws readers a bone by giving them a sort of ‘happy out’, despite not being certain of the truth behind McCandless’s journal entries. Chris McCandless’s journals were not only nonspecific regarding its content, but they also neglected to note the date. His entries kept track of time only by numbering them one through one hundred thirteen, presumed to be the amount of time he spent in the woods (Read, Pictures). This may be due to Chris losing track of time, forgetting the day, or perhaps not wanting to know, but none the less Krakauer takes it upon himself to add that bit in. Through the novel, Krakauer makes references to specific days, he says on May 22nd Chris lost the crown from one of his molars (164), and on July 28th McCandless finished the book he was reading (189), and so much more. These days are impossible to be certain on unless McCandless mentioned them specifically. Krakauer speculates the date he claims are facts based on the interviews with people who met Chris during his travels, post cards that went out prior to the beginning of Chris’s true disappearance, and the date commonly assumed to be the last he was seen, April 28th, 1992 (7). If someone interviewed got a day wrong, or Chris was out of it enough to miss a day in his notes, or so many other possibilities, Jon Krakauer’s entire timeline could be giving false information and he leaves no comment of potential inaccuracy. It’s understandable that he made this writing decision to help readers, and possibly himself, keep track of the events order of occurrence.
Into the Wild is written in the order that Krakauer found his information; therefore, it is very easy to be lost along the way. However, an explanation of the meaning of the numbered passages would have sufficed and this entire uncertainty could be avoided. Krakauer never straight up lies to his readers about events that occurs or their order, but he fluffs large amounts of every chapter with speculations, judgements, and guesses. Almost always reminding the audience that what he writes shouldn’t be totally taken as fact, he manages to keep readers interest with just the right amount of dramatization and types of false advertising for Into the Wild to still be classified as a non-fiction story. The eerie telling of McCandless’s adventure could not have been handled better. From offering all facts available, meshed with every possibility Jon Krakauer could imagine, this use of literary journalism created a memorable tribute to a journey most people could never imagine.
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