Saturday, June 20, 2009

Eggers Shows How We Are Hungry

How We Are Hungry (HWAH), Dave Eggers’s third book, his only of short stories, published in 2004, after A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, a title that the book may have lived up to, and You Shall Know Out Velocity! (YSKOV!) and before What is the What, was also, coincidentally, the third book of his I have read.  I admit that the one I have not read is the “work of genius,” but after finishing this collection of short stories, I am already convinced.

Among other things, Eggers is very cool. If you aren’t familiar with Eggers, you probably should be, considering that in addition to the four books he has published, he also founded his own independent publishing company, McSweeney’s, which produces its own literary journal, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a monthly lit. mag., The Believer, and the DVD magazine Wholphin.  An amateur reviewer of the book sums it up nicely when he states “I didn't know much about Eggers besides the fact that hipper people than I adored him. Sexier, well-connected people.”  So, why has he received such attention from the literary community?  For one, there was a photo of him in GQ’s October 2007, 50th Anniversary Issue, filling out one of the obligatory writer spots in the spread, there was also one of David Foster Wallace, that celebrated the most stylish men around.  Part of his cool comes from the fact that he is the quote unquote “magnetic center of a literary counterestablishment,” making him popular among the hipsters, and having his own independent company means he doesn’t have to play by the rules of publishing houses; for example, as A.O. Scott notes in his New York Times review, Eggers “released [this book] with a characteristic disdain for the rituals of the publishing industry: no reviewers' galleys, no back-cover blurbs, no publicity.”

But the main reason he comes off as someone you would just about die to meet at a bar is that he modestly captures the anxieties of a generation without being pretentious, for the most part, or preachy, and shit, the guy can write.  Everyone I know that likes Eggers has had a rough go at life and find his work soothing and his self-reflexive humor honest, while people I know that don’t like his work tend to be the of type that buy their whole wardrobes from Urban Outfitters who ironically think that “he tries too hard to be cool” or as Nicholas Taylor puts it in a review for PopMatters he’s a “too-cool, too-knowing, too-sarcastic edge of a smart-cracking wise ass.”  However, a few people whose opinions I respect have said that his self-referential, meta-style and his constant use of irony end up making his work “too cutsie.”  I too sort of think this at times during some of the pieces in HWAH and specifically in the section of YSKOV! aptly called “An Interruption" where Hand commandeers the narrative to go off on his own mostly unrelated rant, but even Hand’s absurd bit had its charm, and, for the most part, this stuff doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of his work and I sort of like some of the gimmicks despite themselves.

Conceding Scott’s point that the volume wavers between looking “like yet another late-postmodern grab bag of secondhand gimmicks and tried-and-true tricks,” readers must then begin “distinguishing one from the other” themselves “since Eggers excels at appearing at once utterly guileless and ultra-self-conscious.” With the task established, there were two stories in this collection that were self-conscious gimmick laden, “Notes for a Story of a Man Who Will Not Die Alone” and “Quiet”, making the latter almost unreadable.  “Notes for a Story” is presented in just that fashion, the bullet points of a pretty interesting story about a man planning to have a final farewell bash where he slips away naturally in the company of over a 1,000 people all there to see him go.   However, in this experimental form, it comes off as sort of irritating, especially in reference to its constant self-revision as it goes along.  But it was at least interesting.  Though the same cannot be said for “Quiet” that is in practically everyway irredeemable and is unnecessarily gimmicky. 

With “Quiet,” there are way too many layers of irony to peal away before much sense is made of the story, but here is the gist of it:  It tells of two friends who have met in Scotland and how their relationship changes for the worse after the past resurfaces and a friendship-ending event come to fruition while on the trip, loops back in on itself like John Barth’s “Frame-tale” that opens his book of stories, Lost in the Funhouse.  Eggers manages to one up Barth though on the postmodern douchiness scale though by making his endless cycle of a story much longer than his counterpart’s literal loop.  “Quiet” begins with the narrator, Tom, telling us that when he previously told this story, he concluded it with a conversation he had with  “the nickly shimmer of the moon on a black lake” that took place after the events the story explains transcribe.  It then gives us the entire conversation, which starts with the apparition (?) saying “You are a lucky one, Tom, to have Erin and others like Erin” (85).  We learn that Erin is a girl that he worked with, having gotten her a job where he worked after they first met, and has been pretty much head-over-heals in love with ever since.  For her, Tom feels “blessed.”  But the shimmer foreshadows in its statement, “I saw you and Erin by the shed… I was there,” (86) that everything may not been awesome between them, Tom and Erin.  First, Tom berates Erin into telling her information that he doesn’t really want to know about her sexual history that involved a three-way encounter with two of their co-workers, guys they were both friends with.  After bullying her, he experiences “road rage” that culminates in him hitting and killing a sheep.  Things don’t seem to be going smoothly when Tom seems to have a change of heart following a supposed near-death-experience.  Back on speaking terms, they decide to check out a lighthouse in the area where the infamous barn resides.  When the reader eventually finds out what climactic event took place behind the barn, at best one of the most gruesomely awkward sexual encounters ever written that was possibly even a rape, the reader is appalled as the shock of this “fucked up” scene sets in.  In a moment of uncontrolled, unrequited (Erin never gets wet) passion, Tom sticks his penis in her from behind while she tells him to wait.  Afterwards, once he says sorry, she tells him “Don’t be sorry. That would make it weirder.”  Tom, then, correctly observes, “Oh shit! This is so bad,” (112).  The whole thing leaves everyone feeling deeply disturbed, reader included, and it ruins the friendship.  Spending the last couple days in Scotland awkwardly touching her hair, after which Tom and Erin would never speak, he looks out the window and sees the “nickly shimmer on the bay.”  It ends when “it smiled, eyed me with an unwelcome knowingness, and began to speak,” (114) bringing the story back to the beginning where one turns to read the concluding dialogue. 

Another story, “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself,” mercifully omitted from the paperback edition used in this review, I guess he really learned to keep it to himself in the second go, also infuriates Eggers’s audience through its one pomo device: experimentation.  This “story” is so experimental it’s only a title followed by five white pages with only the title and page numbers disturbing the blankness.  A story that delivers absolutely nothing to the reader, literally, the postmodernist being weird for the sake of being weird.  Stuff like this tends to really annoy people and Ed Caesar, in his scathing review from The Independent, was so pissed off by the postmodern conventions that he wrote one quickly realizes that these pages of blank space “might be the best of the lot.”  Ouch.  Eggers, in an interview with Salon, tries to explain, saying, "There was a story there, seven pages, until a few weeks before we went to press. And it was a very personal and painful kind of story, and I thought it fit in the collection. But then I was advised that it wasn't such a good idea to put it in, and so instead I changed the title and left the pages blank."  But that really doesn't tell us why it was left in as blank space.  And his final words about the piece, "in a weird way it went from the most wrenching part of the book to what appears to be a quick gag," doesn't help his case against the charges that he uses irony as a crutch nor justify its postmodern weirdness.  

Other than these two pieces, three if you count the one left out of the paperback, they all can’t be winners now can they, the rest of the book proves solid, some of it, dare I say it again, genius.  The success of the other dozen stories depends, in most cases, on Eggers’s ability to generate characters the reader cares for, and he does it almost immediately. In the five extremely short pieces --"What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from His Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust"; "On Wanting to Have Three Walls up Before She Gets Home"; "She Waits, Seething, Blooming"; "Naveed"; and "About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her" -- this task gets done to varying degrees of effectiveness, but each of them is not without some merits.  The first, "What It Means," for example, one part title, two parts story, takes a single idea -- in this case, how a traumatic event thousands of miles away can cause despair for one unconnected man as it makes its way into his life via his television set.  This piece, as well as "On Wanting" and "Naveed," are some the best in the collection.  They're exceptional because they take the familiar Eggers concerns of guilt and longing and and romantic ideals and solipsism, etc., and move them from global empathy of the theoretical  "Over There," as explained by John Freeman of The San Francisco Chronicle, in "Velocity," and in making them more personal by giving us an intimate portrayal that brings their concerns "Right Here."

Most of Eggers’s characters fall into the same category of good, pleasant adults that have yet to mature which causes those around them to underestimate them and in turn leaves them feeling empty and wanting.  Their relationships and friendships are easy rather than complex, one gets the sense that they wouldn’t stay in them for very long if they were complex, and they shy away from responsibility.   As a result, many of them are dealing with deeply embedded feelings of loneliness and grief.  These are the type of characters found in YSKOV! with the protagonist, Will, who has just come into a substantial sum of money, and his best friend, Hand, who set out on a trip around the world where they go to different countries, spend like less than a day, and just throw a bunch of charity in someone’s face.  My first experience reading, or hearing about, Eggers came out of a course on African fiction, when after the first class, we were given a snippet of the book that appeared as a short story somewhere and in class we talked about how the bit was so typically American abroad—throwing aid/money at people, throwing off societal structure, without learning anything about the people or country they are traveling through.  Obsessed with motion, they purchase tickets with an airline that allows unlimited travel for one week so long as they go in the same direction with each flight.  But with only a few days to get across the globe, they spend most of their time in airports or on planes, showing that even the quickest mode of transportation doesn’t keep up with them.  It pisses them off and they long for teleportation, we have been promised this for years after all.  Their generosity then is all about them in their need for adventure and need to feel they have a purpose. 

In HWAH too we find constantly-on-the-move characters like Will and Hand who examine the morality of their actions abroad because of that subtle deference between what they see as sympathy and what the locals they encounter view as sympathy/pity, all the while seeking for something actually worth seek.  It’s Kafka’s really central joke, as David Foster Wallace wrote in the essay “Laughing with Kafka,”—“that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”  With four of the stories dealing directly with travel abroad—“Another;” “The Only Meaning of the Oil-wet Water;” the previously mentioned “Quiet;” and “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”—many of the characters are just like Will and Hand; matter of fact, one of them actually is Hand.  After his part in YSKOV!, he reappears in one of this collection’s best stories, “The Only Meaning of the Oil-wet Water,” once again as a kind of sidekick who is that friend you know who if say falls into a gutter, Forest Gumps his way out with two Rolexes he just happened to, what dude, find.  Think of him as this generation’s Dean Moriarty, which would sort of make Eggers our Jack Kerouac.  In this story, Hand just shows up in Costa Rica, where he and his female friend, Pilar, mentioned in YSKOV!, whom he has known since his childhood in Wisconsin have a choreographed vacation together.

From the beginning, Pilar’s intentions are clear, the two have been flirting for years though Hand is “the only attractive old friend she'd never slept with” (23) and sees this time of surf and sun as the perfect opportunity to begin sexual relations.  However, as the words “oil” and “water” in the title allude, they don’t come together all that well. Their coming together sexually—hey, hey—has been long in the making and Pilar, at least, has been planning the whole thing for years.  It gets complicated, their hooking-up, as tends to happen, because of the baggage they carry with them—an easy connection to make here—for her, taking the form of insecurity and, for him, selfish attachments.  Because Eggers tells the reader early on “this story is not about Pilar and Hand falling in love,” (24) it is safe to assume the two do not become a long-term item; thus, the story has to sort out the reasons why it ultimately doesn’t last, something that is not overtly explored, which puts the task of doing so entirely through the clues within the story.  This is exactly why the postmodern-metafictional elements/”tics” critics universally hated end up not only working but prove integral to understanding the story.  Even though they act awkwardly, make out in a funny way, and say all the inappropriate things, they still end up sleeping together, and when the story concludes, this seems to be just the start of a wonderful relationship.  Wrong, it can never be as we know that this story is not about that; it is about, as much as anything, why they cannot end up working things out in the end, but only for those that know what to look for. 

Beginning with Pilar, shortly into the account she comes off as silly and playful, saying that she wanted to go to Nicaragua because it “sounded dangerous,” thinking to herself that “It sounded like some kind of spider. There it goes, under the table – Nicaragua!” (21).  However, as the reader gets to know her, it becomes increasingly clear that this was actually a lament over the suppression of her desires based on her self-consciousness that in the end proves debilitating.  As a result of her need to be liked, she plans out jokes to sound spontaneous, calculates every moment of premeditative sex in advance, tries to seem cooler than she believes she really is, etc., and ends up losing out on enjoying the moment for the fun that it provides.  For example, while out surfing for the first time, she can’t take pleasure in the act because “she was concerned that if she did [anything] wrong she would be laughed at or pointed at and removed,” and so, “she did as they did, even though, as often as not, they didn’t know either,” in failing to realize that “everyone was an amateur, everyone pretending at grace,” (35).  In other words, Pilar could never really give herself completely over to another because she is too concerned with appearance to find actual connection.  Hand, on the other… um, well, you get the idea, is more genuine but also has a hard time connecting because he is too self assured.  Possessing this persona that seems honest and sincere, he likes this person and how relates everything to it not how they really are.  Describing Hand’s work history, Pilar hits the nail on the freggin’ head, he likes things that are “well-paying”—i.e. self-beneficial—“low-commitment,” and like his jobs, he is “impossible to explain,” (20).  Impossible that is because as a master-manipulator, possible even unaware he’s doing it, he obscures the distinction between his wants and the one being manipulated, and thus they are in Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua.  Hand, therefore, works to have as little responsibility as possible so as to stay on his completely self-involved focus on personal gain since taking on more means losing a part of himself. 

Similarly, the story “Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance” also deals with characters who have long known each other but when it comes time to talk about something serious, social issues get in the way and they fail to connect.  Here, a young man named Fish drives a significant distance to visit his cousin Adam who has just attempted suicide by jumping off a hotel rooftop.  We learn of the things Fish wants to say to Adam about his repeated attempts to kill himself, however, he finds himself both literally and figuratively unable to say the things that need to be said because of the barrier, the locked hospital window, between them.  In the end, with all the things left unsaid still hanging in the air, it concludes with Fish shimmying up a tree next to his cousin’s hospital window and waving at him like an idiot not knowing how else to tell him he cares.

The protagonist in “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” is another character who has been similarly afflicted due to her lack of voice that has snatched away love and the wanted responsibility of raising children.  There is no way to describe this story other than brilliant.   In it, he wholly forgoes any cuteness or gimmicks or experimental styles, with beautifully lithe prose, Eggers takes one of Hemingway’s greatest achievements “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in the short story genre of which he was master, and not only attempts to update it, but following the same thread, tries to improve upon the definitive account of climbing this mountain, or any for that matter.  Hemingway’s story tells of a writer named Harry who develops gangrene he knows will kill him while waiting for his and his wife, Helen, to be rescued after getting stranded during a safari in Africa.  Eggers, on the other hand, tells a similar story but from a vastly different perspective. First of all, the story is told from a female perspective, who, like Harry, trying to put her life back on track after her sheltered living of procrastination and solipsism, seeing the experience as one of struggle to achieve something difficult.  She is really searching for something authentic her in the exotic having not found anything to validate her life at home, in the states, and now hopes that traveling and doing will bring about something monumental—i.e. a new self.

Reviewing his life in a series of flashbacks, Harry too wants this as he thinks of his talent as a writer that was wasted after marrying Helen and also the sick, hollow feeling of being alone.  Occasionally this makes him be nice again for a moment but then he goes right back into insulting the wife.  Eventually, you realize the gangrene is just a metaphor and it is really the marriage or being married to this woman that is killing him.  Rita is filled with a sense of urgency that is much the same as Harry’s, both of whom are middle/upper-class Americans who feel guilt and anxiety for wasting their talents, with hers revolving around her parents taking the foster children she was trying to adopt to keep her from the added responsibility. With little to do but wait for a plane that he knows won’t reach him in time, Harry spends most of his time drinking and bitching about the life he has wasted and the faults of his wife.  Harry, then, is ultimately pissed that living off his wife’s wealth has pulled him down the slope toward artistic decline and once free of her, he sees his problems ending there.  As such, he imagines the rescue plane getting there in time to take him to Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped summit he equates with fulfillment.  At first, Rita too, views the climb through romantic lenses, but unlike Harry who probably still wouldn’t write, Rita, after the deaths of some of the porters carrying their things, is eventually forced to realize that she cannot run from her problems that follow her even as she ascends to new heights.  Hemingway romanticizes the whole deal but in this age that doesn’t work.  More is needed than transformative experience to break out of the unromantic, guarded cells postmodern man finds himself, it just shows you what you’ve been living in.  Rita learns this the hard way after reaching the peak where she is still haunted by the unrelenting ghosts of the frozen dead lining the mountainside just like the boy Harry recalls whose frozen body had been half-eaten by dogs after dying on a climb.  And now on foreign land, the hopeless present and the tormented past, leaves them even more distraught and feeling alone.  The only promise is escape through change, otherwise, you die like Harry, living through so much, though only for a moment, never with any regard for the future.

Another of the my-interesting-and-lonely-time-abroad stories is called “Another,” and though the title is stupid, especially considering it’s the frame tale, i.e. the first goddamn one in the collection, it is one of those great little eye-openers that really makes you reassess the homeland and the experience of foreign travel.  A couple of years back, the Hof-meister, went through a similar situation on a class field trip at the exact place the narrator has his own realization. Like the female companion, the narrator, in Egypt riding on horseback to see the pyramids, expects them to somehow transform his life, but to quote pretty much every kid that went on the pilgrimage to Gizeh and saw the pyramids from my former master’s program, “Hated it,” said in their best In Living Color voices.  But before she went with her classmates on said mission trip, I touched up on the old pyramid facts, which mostly consisted things I had read in some book on the original Seven Wonders of the World, and I really thought she would find herself in awe.  I was excited for her and I was spewing out knowledge trying to impress her, telling her the old proverb “men fear time, time fear the pyramids,” and all that was great, until I started looking into the U.S. Embassy’s tips when traveling to that country.  The government site basically concluded that you shouldn’t go unless you have to and not even then if you are female.  Shit.  Now I was a wreck with my worrying.  But I guess that it really isn’t a big deal and this amounts to scare tactics more than anything else, as I learned from my school’s pilgrims and from the narrator of Eggers’s story.  The narrator, “in Egypt, against the advice of [his] government… [unwise] with the poor state relations between our nation and the entire region,” (7) seems to have been drawn not there specifically, but away from home, finding “words like anxiety and depression… apt.”  But, of course, they don’t possess magical powers or anything and no one I know at least is really changed by visiting the oldest man-made historical monument.  Seeing this kids following their trips, it seemed they had come back from a rock concert more than bearing witness to a mass transformative experience—on their way back and shortly thereafter, they talked of nothing but the trip and once they got tired of cleaning their hookahs or smoked all their shisha, they were back here looking for jobs and dealing with the same shit that didn’t get worked out before they left.  When specifically talking about their disappointment over the pyramids, most talk about how they weren’t allowed to climb up on them or how they weren’t as big as they thought they would be or, like the narrator explains, they were constantly harassed by “the hawkers who work the Gizeh plateau—really some of the least charming charmers the world owns—were trying to sell me anything,” (8).  It turns out that the pyramids are more than anything, well, just boring, and what they really went on about and also what the narrator enjoys the most, is the movement/travel itself.

What is striking is that Eggers’s characters are always vividly real; especially true for those that aren’t even human.  As seen in “Quiet,” he writes the reflection of the moon into the story, giving it a voice, and elsewhere with say horses or the ocean.  But where he does this most brilliantly is in the story “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” my personal favorite, which chronicles the innocent yet wise spirit of a happy dog that loves nothing more than to run but is tragically killed doing what he loves.  (For an emotional, heartfelt review, see "What Really Knocks Me Out...").  I may be a sucker for dog fiction—see my review for Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, a somewhat similar tale featuring a dog as the protagonist—but I dare you to not find such fiction endearing.  It’s is touching to hear anyone say of what they are doing “Damn, I’m so in love with all of this,” (206) and was even more so in this tale.  This is a dog near and dear to my heart, much like one of my own, Cap n’ Crunch, who I could almost hear say “OH I’M A FAST DOG. I’m fast-fast. It’s true and I love being fast I admit It I love it. You know fast dogs. Dogs that just run by and you say, Damn! That’s a fast dog! Well that’s me. A fast dog. I’m a fast-fast dog. Hoooooooo! Hooooooooooooo!”  (205). Whatis great about both works of fiction is that we really trust these little guys and believe in their simple ambitions.  Plus we learn why dogs chase the squirrels the way they do—just saw Up in 3D and they deal with this in hilarious fashion—because “the squirrels have things to say,” (209).  And while this is going on, they offer us powerful critiques of the vain, wasteful lives of our species.  For instance, the story, and book, ends with the lines “everyone in the life before was cranky, I think, because they just wanted to know,” (218) which got to me as one who has his share of EXISTENTIAL MELTDOWNS.  Because that’s just it, I—like many of the characters in the book—just want to know, this dog though, he already does.


Kate Peterson said...

I thoroughly enjoy Eggers. He does everything. He even manages to run a small literacy advocate group in California. You should read his first popular work - the "Heartbreaking Work..."

Kate Peterson said...

And by advocate, I clearly meant advocacy. Tired.

Wallflower Extraordinaire said...

Thanks for linking to my reactions to "After I was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned"! That story still breaks my heart every time...