Six Degrees of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
No book is a perfectly self-contained artifact. Books are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of literature — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic works and five other books we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the books are highly, highly recommended.
And I saw that something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there. There are a bunch of reasons Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella still resonates, but here are two your lit teacher left out: 1) It's supremely badass a grim, suspenseful horror story full of corpses and terrible people. And 2) Even though it's about a turn-of-the-last-century Brit boating up the Congo with colonialist monsters to... the left of him and cannibals to the right, everybody can kinda sorta relate because, shit, who hasn't been on a bad trip? Granted, Charles Marlow's journey is particularly rough stuff, but he's a stooge for an ivory trading company charged with dragging one of his rogue peers out of the jungle, so he's not exactly surprised when things get nasty. His quarry is Kurtz, a man shrouded in mystery, but not because we know too little about him. Everybody Marlow meets paints a glowing picture of this "universal genius" Kurtz is supposedly an artist, journalist, musician, lover, god and, like, the best darn ivory trader of all time. But the real star here is Marlow's boat ride to hell, which Conrad douses with relentless pessimism and inventive bleakness. One of the great feel-bad adventures of all time!more »
And then quite suddenly, vague, indefinable, monstrous, there loomed a something ahead. As with Heart of Darkness, the dudes in Apsley Cherry-Garrard's 1922 memoir really should have stayed home. Maybe try to land a cushy desk job somewhere. But no, the under-prepped/over-proud British gloryhounds pull a Chuck Marlow and pit themselves against the harsh indifference of nature and, of course, get their asses handed to them. And for what? Bragging rights at... the South Pole. Oh, and Emperor Penguin eggs for research/omelets. That's the MacGuffin that led the brainy, hearty AC-G and co. deep into Antarctica for The Worst Journey in the World. And that title might sound like the kind of thing an editor would slap on a hundred years later but no: Apsley really kept a diary, came home, had some time to count his blessings and put a little spin on things and still named it that. Tells you something. This thing is bleak.more »
Large expeditions have only one and all come to grief. Keeping the theme going, here's another one about an industrious Brit who enjoys traveling, meeting new people and endangering his own life needlessly. Like Cherry-Garrard, this guy did it in the name of science and discovery. Like Kurtz, it killed him. Poor Colonel Percy Fawcett. We'll probably never know what happened to the celebrity explorer or the other hundred people who journeyed... with him into the Amazon in search of a mythical city and disappeared forever. But at least it wasn't in vain, because David Grann's book is a blast. It's not just thoroughly researched and colorfully written — the author actually took his own trip into the jungle to investigate the Fawcett mystery personally. Just plain awesome.more »
Life is an anomaly here and the mountains will only tolerate that anomaly for so long. Everybody knows the headlines: Plane carrying Uruguayan rugby team crashes in the Andes in 1972; players resort to cannibalism to survive. Like Fawcett, these young men confront death on harsh, alien terrain. An important distinction, of course, is that Nando Parrado and his compatriots were unwilling explorers, and utterly unprepared for their desperate circumstance. But this... autobiography is as uplifting as it is grim well, maybe it's more like a 30/70 split and is probably the greatest (or at least best-written) survival story of all time. I mean it's horrible, all the shit these guys go through but the fact of their survival is more powerful than all of it. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a pussy.more »
I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. It's easy to see why Christopher "Alex Supertramp" McCandless has become an icon. Idealistic, confident, given to poetic declarations and bold gestures, the young star of Jon Krakauer's gripping biography has inspired many to reconsider the... trappings of material things, and to make a pilgrimage to the beat-up old bus in the Alaskan wilderness where he spent his last days. That said, there are about a hundred ways his starvation and suffering could have been prevented. Krakauer himself an experienced climber and outdoorsman neither lionizes nor demonizes his subject, but Into the Wild can be read as a cautionary tale without much squinting. Like Nando Parrado, McCandless was a spiritual man who believed the natural world offered a clearer view of God, regardless of his own suffering.more »
I can touch the face of infinity in these doldrums. Nothing gives even a slight hint that the stillness will break. The body count in this list is so high that a story about a guy cutting off his own arm counts as a carefree romp, right? And don't go crying about the spoiler: Everybody, regardless of whether they read the book, saw the movie or met the man, knows Aron Ralston... got his right hand trapped by a boulder in Blue John Canyon in Utah and had to self-amputate. With a tiny little knife. After drinking his own pee. Yeah, he's kind of a meathead, and a Phish fan, but nobody deserves that. Interestingly, Ralston has said that it was Into the Wild that inspired him to be an outdoorsy type climbing mountains, camping out, etc. Unlike McCandless, the earnest Ralston was in it for the thrills and not prone to risky behavior. But he did make at least one fateful mistake, one the ghost of Percy Fawcett could've warned him about: He didn't leave a note. Unless somebody knows where you are and when you're due back, you probably won't get rescued. But that's hindsight. Like Nando Parrado, Ralston recognized the desperation of his predicament and, once all other options were exhausted, did the awful things he needed to do to survive.more »