Review of Touching The Void
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/05
Having recently watched the DVD of the film version of Touching The Void my wife decided she needed to read the book, so ordered it online for a buck or so. Now, the nostrum that applies in such cases is generally that the film is never good as the book, because books go into more detail, and the pictures painted in the mind are rarely matched on film. The exceptions to this rule are generally in science fiction or horror films, where the awe or dread that can be felt through the visual image far supersedes that any word can convey- the whole picture is worth….trope. The stellar example of this comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the book, good as it is, falls far short of the powerful imagery of the film.
The same can be said adventure films, generally, and TTV is no exception, as words may go on for a few paragraphs to describe a climbing maneuver that lasts half a second onscreen. The film is superior, more distilled and really good, while the book is merely good. Joe Simpson, the mountaineer whose personal struggle with the Andean peak Siula Grande after an accident nearly costs his life, and that of his partner Simon Yates, is a good writer. The basic tale is that the young duo, along with a third man, Richard Hawking- whom they met and asked to tend their base camp, attempted to scale the unassailed peak. Upon reaching the summit the pair encounter problems unexpected- both natural, and due to their callow arrogance. Joe severely breaks his right leg nearly 20,000 feet up, falling and hitting a slope at the base of a cliff, also rupturing his right knee, and shattering his right heel. Simon heroically attempts to rescue his partner, but eventually, after Joe has helplessly fallen off the side of an overhang, and dangles a hundred feet above a crevasse, Simon- unknowing his partner’s fate, is faced with either being pulled off the mountain by Joe’s weight, or ‘cutting the rope’ after hanging on for over an hour- a decision for which we are told he was scorned in the mountaineering community- even though that decision resulted in both men living through their disaster.
Simon returns to Richard and is racked with guilt, while Joe somehow makes it out of a crevasse he’d fallen into, and down the mountain, to be rescued by Simon and Richard. That’s the basic tale, but it’s how the story is told that makes the memoir memorable, although ultimately nor as satisfying as the visual feast of the film.
Joe has a taut, spare style of writing. Perhaps the only negative one can point to is that he goes a little too much into techno-speak on mountaineering. However, this is forgivable since that was the audience he was writing for. That the book became a general public bestseller was a surprise. In a sense he writes sort of like Mickey Spillane- with spare descriptions, clipped, but not as taut as MS. But, there are some soaring moments of poetry- especially one scene where Joe describes looking out of the crevasse at stars at night in a dreamy poetic way that makes a very familiar scene seem new. He also has taken Simon’s story, told to him since they were separated, and crafted a compelling counter-narrative that acts antiphonally with Joe’s own tale. We get to parallax the whole tale, which lends far more realism than a singular viewpoint would.
The only negative part of the book is the ending, in which little aftermath is given. While this is a good technique to start the book off with- we get little background information on Joe and Simon (later in the memoir we get a few digressions to past expeditions by them and others), and a few tantalizing hints as to the rich life Richard Hawking has led- we are so drawn to these characters that to not be given information feels a cheat. But, that would be acceptable had the actual ending been good, narratively or in its mere construction, or left us in a particular moment as we had been in other parts of the book. Instead we end the book with this dreamy recollection of Joe’s being readied for surgery on his broken leg in a hospital a few days after his rescue, and his desire to not be operated on in Peru:
A strong hand pressed me back. Another gripped my arm and I felt the slight pain of the needle. I tried to lift my head but somehow it doubled in weight. Turning to the side I saw a tray of instruments. Above me bright lights came on, and the room began to swim before my eyes. I had to say something….had to stop them. Darkness slipped over the lights and slowly all sounds muffled down to silence.
That’s it. After this rousing tale the reader is left with this wet noodle of an ending. This frustrates a reader far more than the slight drag a reader feels by reading of the duo’s every single little mountaineering movement and the accompanying emotions they felt. That, at least, lent a compelling authenticity to the narrators’ voices. So did the descriptions of the physicality of the men, mountain, and meteorological conditions. The end, alack….
That said, this book is far better written than most of the ‘creative writing’ peddled at MFA programs. Had he gone there before writing this I’m sure the book would have been over twice its 184 pages, and larded with banal digressions that eked into every little detail of Joe’s and Simon’s childhoods, endeavoring to find the ‘real meaning’ behind why Simon cut the rope. Fortunately, Joe’s a better writer than that, and better than Simon, a part of whose book Joe quotes from in an afterword called Ten Years On.... It’s obvious from the selection that Joe wrote Simon’s soliloquy in his own book, and does a really good job of empathizing with the man a lesser man might scorn as someone who abandoned him.
It’s rare that such an archetypal story is so concisely well-written, especially considering this was Joe’s first effort- usually these sorts of Gilgameshian man vs. nature epics are long on the epic tale, and short on the ability to convey it. Almost as rare as the adventure it describes.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 4/05 Hackwriters website.]
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