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Into Thin Air
The New New Journalism
I used to write the place and date of purchase in all my books, so I know that I bought Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air in September 1998, and I know that I got it from the Brighton branch of Waterstones, which stands on the corner of a busy junction in the middle of town. One side of the shop looks out onto the heaving claustrophobic mass of the main shopping drag, choked with residents and tourists and anarchists and students and hen parties. The other side is on West Street, a perfect quiet canyon of Georgian townhouses that runs downhill to the sea and seems to give way directly onto the broad blue expanse of the Channel. If you stand at this corner on a hot day you get a strong urge to turn your back on the teeming crowds, run straight down West Street, jump off the end and start swimming for Dieppe.
I spent a lot of time in that Waterstones. I was, you see, a Reader, in the Bill Hicks sense.
Bill Hicks was a fucking jerk, wasn’t he? So much contempt for the little people, none of whom could summon the common bloody decency to be Bill Hicks. So when I say I was ‘a Reader in the Bill Hicks sense’, I mean I was an annoying snob. I disdained many book genres, including non-fiction. When I went into Waterstones and picked up Into Thin Air I’d never heard of it, or of Krakauer, or of Into the Wild, his previous bestseller. I thought this sort of book - the sober retelling of real-life stories, usually written by men, often sports-related - existed only so that brothers-in-law would have something to open on Christmas morning.
Nevertheless, I bought it. I suspect it was on one of those tables with the three-for-two deals and that I was gripped by the blurb, like going into the supermarket for eggs and getting sidetracked by Wotsits:
On May 9th 1996, five expeditions launched an assault on the summit of Mount Everest. The conditions seemed perfect. Twenty-four hours later one climber had died and 23 other men and women were caught in a desperate struggle for their lives as they battled against a ferocious storm that threatened to tear them from the mountain. In all, eight climbers died that day in the worst tragedy Everest has ever seen.1
In Into Thin Air [Krakauer] gives a thorough and chilling account of the ill-fated climb and reveals the complex web of decisions and circumstances that left a group of amateurs fighting for their lives in the thin air and sub-zero cold above 26,000 feet - a place climbers call ‘The Death Zone’.
This is a very effective bit of prose. After all, it made me buy the book, and I’d only gone in there for some Julian Barnes. But if we’re going to be picky, it is florid. All that masculinity (‘launched an assault’, ‘threatened to tear them from the mountain’) and cliche (‘desperate struggle for their lives’) with a thick layer of adjectives (ferocious, thorough, chilling, complex); this is what primary school teachers call ‘juicy’ writing.
Krakauer’s own writing, in contrast, is a long glass of cool water. This is despite his personal involvement in the events described in the book. An accomplished climber, he was on Everest on the day of the disaster and knew many of the people who died. The book opens with him reaching the summit just before everything started to go wrong. Here’s the fourth paragraph of the first chapter:
I paused to take another photo, this one looking down the Southeast Ridge, the route we had ascended. Training my lens on a pair of climbers approaching the summit, I noticed something that until that moment had escaped my attention. To the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and the other lesser peaks surrounding Everest.
See what Krakauer is doing here. This blanket of cloud is the incoming storm that will kill eight climbers; it is the antagonist. It is introduced as a flicker in the corner of the frame, as though it were a supernatural being in a horror story – which, in a way, it is. Krakauer was on the mountain as a journalist and was taking pictures for a magazine piece; he sees the storm for the first time through his camera lens, as though it were a ghost caught in a Victorian photograph.
But this passage is true as much as it is frightening, journalism as much as literature. What I’m saying is, it’s literal as well as metaphorical. The storm really was coming up the ridge, along with exhausted climbers who had nowhere to hide. They had all missed the single most consequential piece of information within a hundred-mile radius. This is going to be a story about fallibility, about highly competent people who screw up.
And despite being just three sentences long, this passage also hints at another theme that will be central to the book. By 1996 climbing Everest was no longer an activity confined to committed mountaineers. It had become a commercial concern and a content opportunity, a space for brand-building, reported magazine pieces and bulletins for new-fangled online news sites. Krakauer was not the only person looking at Everest through the distancing medium of a camera lens, and these dynamics had begun to overwhelm critical safety considerations.
The themes established in this short paragraph will return repeatedly, and they will become a little more frightening and a little more desperate each time. Oh, and that full stop after ‘escaped my attention’, which could have been a colon: that’s a choice. It changes how you read the next sentence.
I remember reading the first few paragraphs in my flat in Brighton and getting the sensation that every reader will recognise, the glorious realisation that a book is going to knock you out. I loved its sobriety, which only enhanced the astonishing drama of the events it described. It was intelligent and erudite, but beautifully legible and easy to read. British literary culture in the ‘90s was captivated by a narrowly defined idea of style, which slipped easily into showing off. After a decade of slogging through Hot Young Novelists and Booker shortlisters, Into Thin Air was extraordinarily refreshing.
This kind of non-fiction does not lend itself to experimentation. You never have to wonder whose voice is whose, or where the plot begins and ends, or whether you’re being taught a painful lesson about story being a bourgeois construct. It has rules that are almost universal:
a thing happened IRL, and the book is an account of that thing.
The thing will be described as clearly and as compellingly as the author can manage.
There will be an illustrative vignette at the start.
Other than that, the account of the thing will start at the beginning and proceed in a conventional manner, timewise, through the middle and on to the end.
Concepts, events and people that you aren’t familiar with will be explained.
You will learn things you didn’t know before, some of which you might even remember later on.
At the end, everything will be neatly tied off.
If the book is a bestseller, at least 25 angry people will come out of the woodwork after publication, necessitating a long foreword and some corrections to the second edition.
Given all of this, the only thing that really matters - the only factor that distinguishes any given non-specialist non-fiction book from another - is whether the author can write. Can they take a mess of tangled strands and spin them into a smooth thread; can they convey detail while maintaining your interest; can they make you feel things; and can they do this in prose that’s as clear and tempting as the English Channel at the bottom of West Street on a hot day.
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Into Thin Air was a hugely successful example of literary non-fiction, a genre that gathered speed in the late ‘90s after a couple of decades in which the literary buzz had been all about novels. Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996), a long investigation into the mysterious life and death of a disturbed young man, was published at around the same time as David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Philip Gourevitch’s account of the Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families (1998) and Dave Eggers’ playful grief memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which was as Gen X as it gets.
These books tipped their hats to the New Journalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in which Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe applied their talents to long-form pieces in periodicals. (Appropriately, the account that became Into Thin Air first appeared as a long read in Outside magazine.) Like old-fashioned reporters Mailer and Wolfe used charm and wiles and footwork to uncover information, but they put it to use in a new journalistic form: not dry reportage, not clarion agitprop, not puff-piece PR, not biographical sketch, not chin-stroking opinion, not yak-yak humour. (It’s interesting that we mostly describe this genre by saying what it is not: non-fiction.) The writer remained within the piece as an explicit presence, highlighting their own subjectivity as a way to tackle complexity and ambiguity. As in history writing, the stakes were built in. The factual novella form that emerged was irresistibly kinetic.
New Journalism tended to go deep and narrow, looking for the world in a bead of glass. Here’s Wolfe’s famous explanation of why he wrote The Right Stuff, his account of astronauts and test pilots in the Mojave Desert:
‘What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out.’
Despite the wry tone, Wolfe is asking some very old, profound questions: where does the appetite for risk come from? Is it the same as the appetite for exploration? Why don’t these people fear death? Or do they just fear it in a different way from most people? Why do men (not women, at this point) strap themselves into tiny capsules in highly combustible contraptions and let themselves be launched into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and beyond at supersonic speeds? Why do they do this even after they’ve seen their colleagues burn to death? Is this kind of courage the same thing as madness?
As a reporter famously asked: ‘Why did you want to climb Mount Everest, Mr Mallory?’ Ordinary journalism can give us the short answers to these questions, but not the long ones. And novelists can try to tackle them, but only by using imaginary people who are rarely as surprising and illuminating as ace pilot Chuck Yeager, the lynchpin figure in The Right Stuff.
The undisputed champion of modern literary non-fiction is Michael Lewis, who anticipated the 2008 financial crash with a bestseller about mortgage-backed bonds (Liar’s Poker, 1989) and followed it up with a vastly successful book (and then film) about baseball statistics (Moneyball, 2003). He has just published Going Infinite, his hotly anticipated book about recently jailed crypto-goblin Sam Bankman Fried. If you don’t want to pay the hardback price for that, check out The Undoing Project (2016). It’s about behavioural economics. Yes, I know that doesn’t sound promising, but it’s wonderful.
Just as Lewis and Krakauer held out against the ‘90s fashion for long narrative titles, they also abstain from the authorial pyrotechnics of Eggers and David Foster Wallace. They are the authorial equivalent of those bizarrely articulate high school kids and mid-level executives who pop up on US news shows and podcasts. Their prose has a confident clarity and gracefulness, a steady measured tone and a resolute absence of swear words that in the UK would mark you out as being a senior diplomat or reigning monarch.
Just as New Journalism arose out of the swirling paranoid miasma of Washington politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the long-running success of narrative non-fiction from the mid-’90s onwards has occurred in an increasingly bewildering public context. Its success is driven by the writers’ democratic insistence on contextual understanding. These books - their sober explanations of technical doo-dahs, their careful character sketches, their sleek capsules of compressed information, all wrapped up in deliciously crisp, literate American journalese - aim not only for knowledge, but for comprehension, an understanding of the world and the people in it. The claim, unstated but seductive, is that this is a perfect model of rational interrogation: calm and thoughtful, measured and self-questioning, it promises to bring order from chaos. It feels like a way of being a good person in a difficult world. There is also the lure of quietude, of turning aside from the bellowing cruelty of contemporary political culture. It’s an intensely comforting promise.
What makes Into Thin Air truly great, though, is that Krakauer recognises that this goal - perfect understanding building towards a serene, well-ordered world - is illusory. In the fraught final sections of the book he reveals that in the panic of the descent from the summit he misidentified a fellow climber, and ended up giving a false report of their last known whereabouts. In doing so he contributed to the chaos that impeded rescue attempts. The last chapter is a threnody of self-recrimination and regret.
Krakauer is still fighting with other survivors about what exactly happened on Everest in 1996. He responded with electrified fury to his portrayal in the 2015 film Everest, which was based on a different account of the same events. He cannot be neutral; he does not have perfect understanding. He can’t produce a definitive account, and nor can he pack the tragedy away in a neat little box. But the promise, the allure of these books, remains. How tempting it is, to turn your back on the noise and the crowds, pick a spot, dive in.
For more writing on the history of writing on history, try Rowan’s piece on the bad men of history and the women who save them:
In terms of Everest tragedies, this blurb is now sadly out of date.