April 27, 2010
It’s an addictive genre and it is hugely popular these days: adventure meets multidisciplinary pop-sci meets biography. The survey style of writing that’s hard to resist and, when well executed, provides a page-turning synthesis of a given topic. Epitomized by Simon Winchester in his bestsellers Krakatoa and The Crack in the Edge of the World, the approachable, storytelling approach to nonfiction tends to lend itself well to journalists and generalists: here breadth works better than depth.
The Lost City of Z tells of Percy Fawcett, Victorian explorer extraordinaire, Royal Geographic Society hotshot and generally immortal geographer of the Amazonian basin. Fawcett represented the last romantic gasps of the centuries-long quest to find something like the mythical golden city of El Dorado. His life’s obsession to be the first to discover proof of an enlightened and materially affluent civilization in the unexplored jungle ended with his mysterious disappearance and the spawning of a new obsession, a shared obsession for all those who sought to uncover what happened to him during the following decades.
It is these two twin obsessions—that of a Victorian egomaniac hellbent on an almost religious treasure hunt and that of the ill-fated expeditions in pursuit of his fate—that David Grann is concerned with in his account. Fawcett is portrayed as an inflexible, stubborn and constitutionally-fortunate leader. His curious ability to avoid the various plagues of the jungle left him unsympathetic to the misery of those less physically blessed. He made enemies easily, but he also had a talent to collect sworn devotees. He was just, simply, single-minded in his pursuit, swatting aside those who impeded him impatiently. Desperate to be the first to make the big-break discovery, he denigrated the successes of other explorers and scientists. I don’t think I’d like the guy.
Still, there’s something about Fawcett that fascinates people. In 1925 he went into the jungle with his son and his son’s friend, and they never came out again. Did they find Z, the code name Fawcett gave to the city he sought? Were they kidnapped by local tribes? Or did they simply die a typical, ignominious death? Many of the curious have died trying to find answers.
This is the type of book I’d love to write. Well, except for the part where author David Grann drags himself through the Amazon wilderness for a long while. There’s a lot of stomach ailments involved that I’d like to avoid. Call me a weakling (it’s true, totally true) but I have to agree with James Murray, veteran of the Shackleton expedition who (haplessly) accompanies The Lost City of Z protagonist Percy Fawcett on a Bolivian mapping expedition in 1911: I’d rather hang out in the Antarctic, thanks. Grann describes, in detail, the insect situation, the malarial swoons, gangrene, the general rotting of humans in the damp environment.
Toward the end of the book, the momentum dips a bit, and Grann’s own, somewhat predictable personal journey into the heart of the Amazon wilderness doesn’t differentiate itself much from, well, the typical journalist-gets-personally-obsessed-with-material-he-is-covering-and-learns-something-about-himself kind of stuff we see a lot of these days. There really is no denouement. Lots of fun, lots of adventure.
By the way, I’d like to point out that my paragraph above about “twin obsessions” was not stolen from the New York Times review of the book, which reads in part:
“Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tells two stories: of the explorer chasing his mirage, and of the reporter chasing the explorer chasing his mirage — twin obsessions spun together like strands on a helix.”
I looked up that review after I wrote the above. But, hey, maybe it means I got the “right answer.”