Reviewed by Alice Robinson
Aron Ralston is starving, dehydrated and on the brink of death when, six days after being pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder, stranded alone in a remote Utah canyon, he snaps his own wrist; the blade of the $15 multi-tool in his pack just won’t cut through the bone. Ralston is committed to amputating his right hand – a desperate bid for survival – and a broken wrist is the least of his worries. For six days, the experienced mountaineer has stood alone in a dark, narrow slot canyon without adequate food or water, drinking his own urine and watching his right hand decompose. He has tried everything he can think of to free himself: applying his survival skills, engineering knowledge, and pure dumb hope to the task; working the problem of his entrapment like a puzzle, whatever limited resources he has carried in on his back, the ill-fitting key to freedom.
No one knows where Ralston is; or even that he is missing. The twenty-seven year old is wholly on his own: just two arm bones, a steak of muscle, whole networks of tendons, arteries and nerves, and one dirty, blunt little blade standing between certain death and the uncertain promise of life. That Ralston successfully completes the amputation without bleeding to death is no new news – the event was all over the media in 2003 when Ralston survived, and again this year promoting Danny Boyle’s film 127 Hours, based on the climber’s grim experience. That once free, Ralston rappels down a cliff-face six stories high and hikes for miles through the desert to rescue, bloody stump bandaged in plastic, might be less well known, though no less remarkable for it.
Ralston is obviously a man of enviable, almost inhuman self-possession, grit and determination; his story so incredible and inspiring and unlikely, so compelling, that it brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. This is narrative at its best: full of suffering and pain, brimming with hope and the overcoming of immense adversity – in other words, a classic example of a ripping ‘good’ story. Regardless, readers need to ask themselves: does an amazing story – or even a pretty good one – make in turn a good book? Then again, when you’ve just witnessed a desperate man hack off his own rotting limb in text, does anyone care either way?
It does, and I do.
Honestly, since finishing 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, I’ve been obsessed with this gruesome survival narrative, googling Ralston and reading old press releases from the time of his accident; watching You-Tube clips of his infamous video-letters home, made on a camcorder in the canyon as stand-in will and testament – a final, tearful goodbye to his folks. I felt – still feel – like turning back to the first page of the book and beginning again, compelled to search out the cracks between lines that might reveal exactly how this whole strange sequence of events came to pass; how he survived them. It is not that the narrative isn’t plain or clear enough: Ralston more than adequately outlines the actions and decisions that led him to the terrible point at which he stabs his own flesh, and cuts through. We understand implicitly that the dying man has assessed and attempted every other option at his disposal; his self-amputation appears neither startling nor strange to the reader, but necessary. Yet there remains something intangibly opaque about the whole narrative, something impenetrable and mystifying. I have been puzzling over its source for weeks, and neither my reading, nor my research, nor viewing Boyle’s film has satisfied it. Nowhere in the book – or, incidentally the film, though much has been made of actor James Franco’s infamous blinding scream of pain – do we ever really understand how it feels to cut off one’s own limb. Since this act sits at the centre of the narrative and is the source of much of the intrigue, its inaccessibility is some kind of failing, one I put this down to the very delicate, almost invisible line between telling a good story, and writing one.
Of course, Ralston is not a writer; he is an extreme sportsman, albeit one who studied French and piano performance at university. He is obviously highly articulate and resourceful, as both his story and his book attest. I was at times deeply impressed, even moved by his control of language, his straightforward, sensitive approach. At other times though, Ralston’s prose felt lacking. I don’t believe that we should accept works simply because their authors suffered greatly, or are heroes, or because the stories they are trying to recreate are worthy of being told. By no means am I advocating literary works above those of other genres and styles, either; I understand that a range of texts have their place in reader’s lives and minds. It is simply that the large absence in Ralston’s work – it’s lack of show and too much tell – is just too unsettling to dismiss.
Some might argue that the intricacies inherent in the emotion and pain derived from the act of self-amputation are impossible to convey any more viscerally on the page, that Ralston’s blow-by-blow account more than suffices the reader’s curiosity and blood lust. Yet at no point in 127 Hours are we ever really invited into the canyon by Ralston’s prose. Instead, we watch at an arm’s length (a cruel but apt pun) as events unfold at an inaccessible distance. This distance is only compounded in Boyles’ film, where Ralston’s narrative is reduced to a thrilling but ultimately vacuous montage; his epic physical and spiritual test of endurance distilled as music video clip for the big screen.
It comes to this: that a good book must communicate something more than the facts; more than pure narration or observation regarding what happened next.
Think about the pain and pathos conveyed in Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog, Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade, even Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Of course these are all novels, but they establish a framework for writing about struggle – internal or imposed – pinning down the borders of what bleak and sensitive narrative can do. In Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, by no means the most accomplished novel on any front, we watch a man in a collapsed tunnel struggle to survive; the scene is rendered so chillingly, the circumstance so desperate and difficult, that in recalling, it gives me goosebumps even now. In terms of non-fiction, David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers – a text that admittedly appropriates many literary devices, and so to some extent assures the conveyance of all the gristle and despair of war to the reader – provides such a horrifying window into Iraq that I defy any reader to remain unaffected by its prose. At the outermost point of affecting non-fiction, marking the high-tide mark of successful narratives, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion shows just how one might tell a tragic story from one’s own life in such a way that the reader feels, really feels every twinge of sorrow, hopelessness and pain. In contrast, Ralston’s book is affecting – the facts assure it – but at the same time the book itself remains alienating, puzzling. The reader survives it, but has no real purchase on what any of it meant.
To some extent, this is the fault of Ralston himself – not Ralston the writer, but Ralston the man. The problems of the book’s craft are compounded by the extent to which Ralston himself mystifies and evades, precisely because he is so extraordinary. What is compelling about his story – his bravery and determination, his sheer inhuman physical fitness and strength, also the extent to which he exerts control over his emotions and mind in the most extreme and desperate of situations – are, in the end, difficult to relate to, and understand.
When Ralston’s mountaineering exploits are catalogued at the beginning of the text, we understand that he is no average man. In fact, there is something almost pathological about his pre-accident project: his plan to climb all of the Colorado fourteeners (mountains that exceed 14,000 feet), alone, in winter, regardless of conditions. He recounts alpinist Mark Twight’s words, ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ as indicative of his chosen sport’s appeal, but pursuing such obvious and critical risk for pleasure places Ralston outside the bounds of ‘ordinary’ life from the start. By the time he finds himself pinned beneath the boulder – as ironic as this unexpected mishap is, against the playing field of all his other, far deadlier expeditions – he has far surpassed expectations of normality, evading avalanches and deadly storms as par for the course. Though the pre-accident anecdotes Ralston provides are true to his life, from a narrative perspective, they make murky the reader’s understanding of, and sympathy for the climber when disaster finally strikes. More crucially, when the boulder pins Ralston to the canyon wall, we are hardly surprised. Shocked, yes; but not surprised. His pre-accident daring and fearlessness set up an expectation of danger and injury; the accident’s predictability in the context of Ralston’s lifestyle robs the event of critical drama. It did not surprise me to find that Boyle cut much of the book’s opening from the film, understanding, if not quite executing that critical delineation between a story and narrative.
No doubt a phenomenal person, a survivor of something beyond the bounds of anything any human can realistically expect to survive, Ralston comes off as some kind of superhero – flawed, vulnerable and scared, its true, but also undeniably strong. So strong in fact, that he is almost impossible to comprehend. In spite of this, a part of me wants to champion this work – despite its flaws, despite myself. There are ways of reconfiguring the narrative, changes to Ralston’s prose style and aptitude for storytelling that might improve what is essentially an articulate paperback holiday read. It strikes me that essence of that phrase, ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ transfers beautifully to Ralston’s book, which is neither ‘fun’ in content nor execution, but which nevertheless contains an essential and admirable quality, one generated in the act of reading; just as climbing life-threatening mountains provides something to Ralston despite the many dangers in the act, so does reading his book, despite its failings, provide something to the reader. For at the center of the work remains a fundamentally incredible experience: touching, inspiring and true. That I remain affected by what I read, even now, is testimony to the undeniable strength of 127 Hours: that Ralston faced death, and with only his character and wits with which to fight, was victorious.
Alice Robinson writes fiction. She works as a freelance writer, professional book group and writing group facilitator, and she teaches in universities. Since 2008, Alice has been researching climate change and Australian literature at Victoria University, where she is a PhD candidate. Having been published in various journals, she also blogs on books and reading at www.critrature.blogspot.com.