Once I’d diagnosed my homesickness, I was able to address it by writing letters. For the rest of the trip, I wrote in my journal every day and found myself moving away from Weidman and gravitating toward my female fellow-campers; I’d never been so successful socially. What had been missing was some halfway secure sense of my own identity, a sense achieved in solitude by putting first-person words on a page.
I was keen for years afterward to do more backpacking, but never quite keen enough to make it happen. The self I was discovering through writing turned out not to be identical to Tom’s after all. I did hold on to his old Gerry backpack, although it was not a useful general-purpose piece of luggage, and I kept alive my dreams of wilderness by buying cheap non-essential camping gear, such as a jumbo bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap, which Tom periodically praised the virtues of. When I took a bus back to college for my senior year, I put the Dr. Bronner’s in the backpack, and the bottle burst in transit, soaking my clothes and books. When I tried to rinse out the backpack in a dormitory shower, its fabric disintegrated in my hands.
Masafuera, as the boat approached it, was not inviting. My only map of the island was a letter-size printout of a Google Earth image, and I saw right away that I’d optimistically misinterpreted the contour lines on it. What had looked like steep hills were cliffs, and what had looked like gentle slopes were steep hills. A dozen or so lobsterman shacks were huddled at the bottom of a tremendous gorge, to either side of which the island’s green shoulders rose thirty-five hundred feet into a cap of broodingly churning cloud. The ocean, which had seemed reasonably calm on the trip out, was beating in big swells against a gap in the rocks below the shacks. To get ashore, the botanists and I jumped down into a lobster boat, which motored to within a hundred yards of shore. There the boatmen hauled up the motor, and we took hold of a rope stretching out to a buoy and pulled ourselves farther in. As we neared the rocks, the boat lurched chaotically from side to side, water flooding into the stern, while the boatmen struggled to attach us to a cable that would drag us out. Onshore were breathtaking quantities of flies—the place’s nickname is Fly Island. Competing boom boxes pumped North and South American music through the open doors of several shacks, pushing back against the oppressive immensity of the gorge and the coldly heaving sea. Adding to the stricken atmospherics was a grove of large, dead trees, aged to the color of bone, behind the shacks.
My companions for the trek to the interior were the young park ranger, Danilo, and a poker-faced mule. Considering the steepness of the island, I couldn’t even pretend to be disappointed not to carry my own pack. Danilo had a rifle strapped across his back, in the hope of killing one of the non-native goats that had survived a Dutch environmental foundation’s recent effort to eradicate them. Under gray morning clouds that soon turned to fog, we hiked up interminable switchbacks and through a ravine lush with maquis, an introduced plant species that is used to repair lobster traps. There were discouraging quantities of old mule droppings on the trail, but the only moving things we saw were birds: a little gray-flanked cinclodes and several Juan Fernández hawks, two of Masafuera’s five terrestrial bird species. The island is also the only known breeding site for two interesting petrels and one of the world’s rarest songbirds, the Masafuera rayadito, which I was hoping to see. In fact, by the time I’d left for Chile, seeing new bird species was the only activity that I could absolutely count on not to bore me. The rayadito’s population, most of which lives in a small high-altitude area on the island called Los Inocentes, is now thought to number as few as five hundred. Very few people have ever seen one.
Sooner than I’d expected, Danilo and I arrived at La Cuchara and saw, in the fog, the outlines of a small refugio, or ranger’s hut. We’d climbed three thousand feet in just over two hours. I’d heard that there was a refugio at La Cuchara, but I’d imagined a primitive shack and hadn’t foreseen what a problem it would pose for me. Its roof was steep and tethered to the ground by cables, and inside it were a propane stove, two bunk beds with foam mattresses, an unappetizing but serviceable sleeping bag, and a cabinet stocked with dry pasta and canned foods; apparently, I could have brought along nothing but some iodine tablets and still survived here. The refugio’s existence made my already somewhat artificial project of solitary self-sufficiency seem even more artificial, and I resolved to pretend that it didn’t exist.
Danilo took my pack off the mule and led me down a foggy path to a stream with enough water trickling in it to form a little pool. I asked him if it was possible to walk from here to Los Inocentes. He gestured uphill and said, “Yes, it’s three hours, along the cordones.” I thought of asking if we could go there right now, so that I could camp nearer to the rayaditos, but Danilo seemed eager to get back to the coast. He departed with the mule and his gun, and I bent myself to my Crusovian tasks.
The first of these was to gather and purify some drinking water. Carrying a filtration pump and a canvas waterskin, I followed what I thought was the path to the pool, which I knew wasn’t more than two hundred feet from the refugio, and I immediately got lost in the fog. When I finally located the pool, after trying several paths, the tube on my pump cracked. I’d bought the pump twenty years earlier, thinking it would come in handy if I was ever alone in the wilderness, and its plastic had since gone brittle. I filled up the skin with somewhat turbid water and, despite my resolution, entered the refugio and poured the water into a large cooking pot, along with some iodine tablets. This simple task had somehow taken me an hour.
Since I was in the refugio anyway, I changed out of my clothes, which had been soaked by the climb through dew and fog, and tried to dry the inside of my boots with the surfeit of toilet paper I’d brought. I discovered that the G.P.S. unit, the one gadget that I didn’t have spare batteries for, had been switched on and draining power all day, which triggered an anxiety that I assuaged by wiping all the mud and water off the refugio’s floor with further wads of toilet paper. Finally, I ventured out onto a rocky promontory and scouted for a campsite beyond the refugio’s penumbra of mule droppings. A hawk dived right over my head; a cinclodes called pertly from a boulder. After much walking and weighing of pros and cons, I settled on a hollow that afforded some protection from the wind and no view of the refugio, and there I picnicked on cheese and salami.
I’d been alone for four hours. I put up my tent, lashing the frame to boulders and weighing down the stakes with the heaviest rocks I could carry, and made some coffee on my little butane stove. Returning to the refugio, I worked on my footwear-drying project, pausing every few minutes to open windows and shoo out the flies that kept finding their way inside. I seemed to be no more able to wean myself from the refugio’s conveniences than from the modern distractions that I was supposedly here to flee. I fetched another skin of water and used the big pot and the propane stove to heat some bathwater, and it was simply much more pleasant, after my bath, to go back inside and dry off with the microfibre towel and get dressed than to do this in the dirt and the fog. Since I was already so compromised, I went ahead and carried one of the foam mattresses down the promontory and put it in my tent. “But that’s it,” I said to myself, aloud. “That’s the end of it.”
Except for the hum of flies and the occasional call of a cinclodes, the silence at my campsite was absolute. Sometimes the fog lifted a little, and I could see rocky hillsides and wet fern-filled valleys before the ceiling lowered again. I took out my notebook and jotted down what I’d done in the past seven hours: got water, had lunch, put up tent, took bath. But when I thought about writing confessionally, in an “I” voice, I found that I was too self-conscious. Apparently, in the past thirty-five years, I’d become so accustomed to narrativizing myself, to experiencing my life as a story, that I could now use journals only for problem-solving and self-investigation. Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I hadn’t written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the ones told—selected, clarified—in retrospect.
My plan for the next day was to try to see a rayadito. Simply knowing that the bird was on the island made the island interesting to me. When I go looking for new bird species, I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduringly transcendent delight. The next morning, I decided, I would get up at dawn and devote, if necessary, the entire day to finding my way to Los Inocentes and getting back. Cheered by the prospect of this not unchallenging quest, I made myself a bowl of chili, and then, although the daylight hadn’t faded yet, I zipped myself inside my tent. On the very comfortable mattress, in a sleeping bag I’d owned since high school, and with a headlamp on my forehead, I settled down to read “Robinson Crusoe.” For the first time all day, I felt happy.
One of “Robinson Crusoe” ’s biggest early fans was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in “Émile,” proposed that it be the primary text for the education of children. Rousseau, in the fine tradition of French bowdlerization, didn’t have in mind the entire text, just the long central section, in which Robinson relates his survival for a quarter century on a desert island. Few readers would dispute that this is the novel’s most compelling section, next to which the adventures of Robinson before and after (being enslaved by a Turkish pirate, fending off the attacks of giant wolves) seem lustreless and rote. Part of the survival story’s appeal is the specificity of Robinson’s recounting of it: the “three . . . hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows” that are all that remain of his drowned shipmates, the catalogue of useful gear that he salvages from the wrecked ship, the intricacies of stalking the feral goats that populate the island, the nuts and bolts of reinventing the homely arts of making furniture, boats, pottery, and bread. But what really animates these adventureless adventures, and makes them surprisingly suspenseful, is their accessibility to the imagination of the ordinary reader. I have no idea what I would do if I were enslaved by a Turk or menaced by wolves; I might very well be too scared to do what Robinson does. But to read about his practical solutions to the problems of hunger and exposure and illness and solitude is to be invited into the narrative, to imagine what I would do if I were similarly stranded, and to measure my own stamina and resourcefulness and industry against his. (I’m sure my father was doing this, too.) Until the larger world impinges on the island’s isolation, in the form of marauding cannibals, there’s just the two of us, Robinson and his reader, and it’s very cozy. In a more action-packed narrative, the pages detailing Robinson’s everyday tasks and emotions would be what the critic Franco Moretti wryly calls “filler.” But, as Moretti notes, the dramatic expansion of this kind of “filler” was precisely Defoe’s great innovation; such stories of the quotidian became a fixture of realist fiction, in Austen and Flaubert as in Updike and Carver.
Framing and to some extent interpenetrating Defoe’s “filler” are elements of the other major forms of prose narrative that preceded it: ancient Hellenistic novels, which included tales of shipwrecks and enslavement; Catholic and Protestant spiritual autobiographies; medieval and Renaissance romances; and Spanish picaresques. Defoe’s novel follows also in the tradition of narratives libellously based, or purporting to be based, on the lives of actual public personages; in Crusoe’s case, the model was Alexander Selkirk. It has even been argued that Defoe intended the novel as a piece of utopianist propaganda, extolling the religious freedoms and economic opportunities of England’s New World colonies. The heterogeny of “Robinson Crusoe” illuminates the difficulty, maybe even the absurdity, of talking about the “rise of the novel” and of identifying Defoe’s work as the first individual of the species. “Don Quixote,” after all, was published more than a century earlier and is clearly a novel. And why not call the romances novels, too, since they were widely published and read in the seventeenth century and since, indeed, most European languages make no distinction between “romance” and “novel”? Early English novelists did often specifically stress that their own work was not “mere romance”; but, then, so had many of the romance writers themselves. And yet, by the early nineteenth century, when leading specimens of the form were first collected in authoritative sets by Walter Scott and others, the English not only had a very clear idea of what they meant by “novels” but were exporting large numbers of them, in translation, to other countries. A genre now definitely existed where none had before. So what exactly is a novel, and why did the genre appear when it did?
The most persuasive account remains the political-economic one that Ian Watt advanced fifty years ago. The birthplace of the novel, in its modern form, happens also to have been Europe’s most economically dominant and sophisticated nation, and Watt’s analysis of this coincidence is blunt but powerful, tying together the glorification of the enterprising individual, the expansion of a literate bourgeoisie eager to read about itself, the rise in social mobility (inviting writers to exploit its anxieties), the specialization of labor (creating a society of interesting differences), the disintegration of the old social order into a collection of individual isolates, and, of course, among the newly comfortable middle class, the dramatic increase in leisure for reading. At the same time, England was rapidly becoming more secular. Protestant theology had laid the foundations of the new economy by reimagining the social order as a collection of self-reliant individuals with a direct relationship with God, but by 1700, as the British economy thrived, it was becoming less clear that individuals needed God at all. It’s true that, as any impatient child reader can tell you, many pages of “Robinson Crusoe” are devoted to its hero’s spiritual journey. Robinson finds God on the island, and he turns to Him repeatedly in moments of crisis, praying for deliverance and ecstatically thanking Him for providing the means of it. And yet, as soon as each crisis has passed, he reverts to his practical self and forgets about God; by the end of the book, he seems to have been saved more by his own industry and ingenuity than by Providence. To read the story of Robinson’s vacillations and forgetfulness is to see the genre of spiritual autobiography unravelling into realist fiction.
The most interesting aspect of the novel’s origin may be the evolution of English culture’s answers to the question of verisimilitude: should a strange story be accepted as true because it is strange, or should its strangeness be taken as proof that it is false? The anxieties of this question are still with us (witness the scandal of James Frey’s “memoir”), and they were certainly in play in 1719, when Defoe published the first and best-known volume of “Robinson Crusoe.” The author’s real name appeared nowhere in it. The book was identified, instead, as “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe . . . Written by Himself,” and many of its first readers took the story as nonfiction. Enough other readers doubted its authenticity, however, that Defoe felt obliged to defend its truthfulness when he published the third and last of the volumes, the following year. Contrasting his story with romances, in which “the story is feign’d,” he insisted that his story, “though allegorical, is also historical,” and he affirmed that “there is a man alive, and well known too, the actions of whose life are the just subject of these volumes.” Given what we know of Defoe’s real life—like Crusoe, he got into trouble by pursuing risky business schemes, such as raising civet cats for perfume, and he had intimate knowledge of isolation from the debtors’ prison in which bankruptcy twice landed him—and given also his assertion, elsewhere in the volume, that “life in general is, or ought to be, but one universal act of solitude,” it seems fair to conclude that the “well known” man is Defoe himself. (There is, strikingly, that “oe” at the end of both names.) We now understand a novel to be a mapping of a writer’s experience onto a waking dream, and a crucial turn toward this understanding can be seen in Defoe’s tentative assertion of a less than strictly historical kind of truth—the novelist’s “truth.”
The critic Catherine Gallagher, in her essay “The Rise of Fictionality,” takes up a curious paradox related to this kind of truth: the eighteenth century was not only the moment when fiction writers, beginning (sort of) with Defoe, abandoned the pretense that their narratives weren’t fictional; it was also the moment when they began taking pains to make their narratives seem not fictional—when verisimilitude became paramount. Gallagher’s resolution of the paradox hinges on yet another aspect of modernity, the necessity of taking risks. When business came to depend on investment, you had to weigh various possible future outcomes; when marriages ceased to be arranged, you had to speculate on the merits of potential mates. And the novel, as it was developed in the eighteenth century, provided its readers with a field of play that was at once speculative and risk-free. While advertising its fictionality, it gave you protagonists who were typical enough to be experienced as possible versions of yourself and yet specific enough to remain, simultaneously, not you. The great literary invention of the eighteenth century was, thus, not simply a genre but an attitude toward that genre. Our state of mind when we pick up a novel today—our knowledge that it’s a work of the imagination; our willing suspension of disbelief in it—is in fact one half of the novel’s essence.