The Unadulterated Soul of Dave Eggers

Writing in the Awl, Maria Bustillos describes how she did a bit of googling and discovered that the most hated contemporary American author, by a wide margin, is Dave Eggers. It might be more accurate to say, though, that Eggers is the contemporary American author who is most likely to attract the kind of Internet commenters who like to talk about things and people they hate. And all that really means is that Eggers is the biggest public figure in American letters. Public figures are the ones who get the anger. Of course Marisha Pessl only has one person actively hating her on the Internet—what’s the point in voicing your dislike for somebody whose name few would recognize?

Bustillos draws some interesting connections between Eggers and the artist Wyndham Lewis, and she lists a few reasons why you ought to like the guy. But there are two things she doesn’t do. For one, she doesn’t address what people are actually writing when they say they hate Eggers—which, on a quick scan, is mainly airy fulminating against the perceived hype that surrounds him and little commentary on the actual work he does. Some of it’s just petty jealousy: “I hate Dave Eggers because he’s like me, and he dared to become successful by being me,” as one blogger put it. At least Dennis Cooper Math T was mad at his actual writing [Update: Thanks to the reader who chimed in to explain that the comment on Eggers below comes not from Cooper but from a guest post from one of his blog’s regular commenters]:

I hate Dave Eggers. His style is totally unreadable to me. Every single sentence is annoying. I’ve disliked almost everything I’ve ever read in McSweeney’s, especially that JT LeRoy one in the Best-of anthology. I don’t like the fonts in which Eggers’ writing is printed. Also, William Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, which McSweeney’s published, is SO incredibly boring.

Which starts getting at the second thing Bustillos doesn’t discuss in her essay: Eggers’ fiction. Her arguments for why you should praise Eggers have to do with his nonprofit work, his role as publisher of The Believer, and his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Nothing in the article and little in its 72 comments amounts to a defense of his fiction, which I gave up on after 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity and a couple of short stories. Eggers has sparked my class resentment in the past, so I may fall into the same camp of haters Bustillos describes. But is there any defense for the showy, trying-too-hard first sentence of Velocity?

Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.*

Flipping through the book again, it seems stuffed with generalization and overstatement, Eggers straining to build up a head of steam by applying Writing-with-a-capital-w over simple things like a glass of water:

In a small city full of banks we stopped for something to drink. Nattily dressed men at cafe tables nodded to us and we walked into a dark cool restaurant and at the takeout counter we bought oranges and sodas. The sunlight over the clerk’s shoulder was white and planed, and when he poured us glasses of water it was clearer than any water I’d ever seen. It was the unadulterated soul of the world.

But Bustillos wouldn’t have a blog post to write about if Eggers persisted as a fiction writer, because whatever the jealous haters on the Internet are jealous about, it’s not Velocity or How We Are Hungry or his novelization of Where the Wild Things Are; his esteem as an author is now almost wholly connected to his charitable efforts, his nonfiction efforts, and his screenplay work.** A lengthy piece on Eggers in this weekend’s Guardian focuses almost exclusively on Zeitoun his nonfiction book on a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and his quotes seem to suggest that, as a writer, he’s come to prefer working as a journalist:

“It is showing, not telling,” he says. “I just went back to all the things I learned in journalism school. There have been so many polemics about the war on terror, but [individual] stories illustrate these things much better. I’m interested in the human impact of the giant foot of misplaced government. After all, we encounter it every day. Every day.”

If Eggers has figured out where his talents and passions truly reside, and if they don’t involve writing novels, there’s nothing to hate about that.

* I’ve never edited fiction, but my inner Gordon Lish figures this sentence would be vastly improved if rewritten as, “Everything here takes place before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry.” Or just cut the sentence, because expressing an awareness of your own death at the very start of the story is pretentious, confusing, or both, and best as I recall mom, death, and the trip to Colombia have no bearing on the novel’s story.

** I’m a fan of last year’s Away We Go, though at the risk of seeming willfully contrarian I’m giving most of the credit to the screenplay’s co-author—Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida—because the movie seems designed to amplify the best qualities of her fiction: a laconic style, a sense of wanderlust, and a concern with what happens when difficult emotions don’t get expressed. Her Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name was one of my favorite novels of 2007, and her forthcoming The Lovers is one of my favorites of the new year.

The 9/11 Novel Now

The Panorama Book Review, part of Dave Eggers‘ effort to show what can be improved in the newspaper in general and the book review in particular*, includes an essay by Juliet Litman considering the evolution of the 9/11 novel. To perhaps overly reduce her thesis, novels like Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man used the image of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers to evoke the pain of the day’s events—they are “artifacts of the aftershock.” By contrast, novels like Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 wirewalk between the tops of the Twin Towers as a thematic device, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland, suggest how much we’ve healed in the past few years. Litman writes:

Like Falling Man, [Let the Great World Spin] forces its readers to relive and rewatch the fall over and over again—but here, the man does not fall. With each vignette, we meet someone who is somehow wounded, a character who is destined for or has already experienced an untimely descent, and we feel their disquiet as they ponder the tightrope walker. Their falls have occurred all over New York, not necessarily at the site of the Twin Towers, and so much grief suffuses the story that reader can can hardly revel in Petit’s achievement. Thus, in one swift narrative, readers experience both the sadness of those already wounded and the safety of certain survival.

Positioning McCann’s book as a 9/11 novel requires a little fancy footwork; with the exception of the epilogue, all the action takes place well before the terrorist attacks. Of course, McCann knew what he was doing in writing a story that prominently featured the World Trade Center in this day and age—his passages on Petit’s walk focus on feelings of fear and helpless spectatorship among the folks on the ground. And Litman’s on to something: If the novel says something about the post-9/11 mood, it may be more about an eagerness to get past it—McCann overstuffs the narrative with character after character as if to reclaim New York as a place full of life. Netherland has a similar strategy—to focus on the living instead of the dead, and even to avoid the trauma of the day head-on. (For all its cricket chatter, the book could be considered a sports novel as easily as a 9/11 one.)

“The synecdochic falling man—the symbol for the larger, brutal aftershocks of the attacks—has given way to McCann’s metonymic, never-falling tightrope walker and to the open-to-everything eye of O’Neill,” Litman writes. In some ways that marks a reversal of critical expectations from the 9/11 novel—not so long ago Keith Gessen told NPR that he thought it would be 50 years before 9/11 was the subject of a great novel. Great or not, it may be that the project of writing novels about that day is wrapping up—moving from shock to healing in less than a decade.

* In that regard, it’s hit-and-miss. I like the idea of including original fiction in a book review, and George Saunders‘ “Fox 8” is clever. The reviews themselves introduce two good ideas: a replication of the first page of the book under consideration, which gives you a sense of the writing as well as the look of the words of the page (that’s not entirely unimportant), and a sidebar listing data about the book’s author, which keeps the boilerplate biographical stuff from clotting the review proper. A feature on male cover models for romance novels seems in concept a nice way to integrate reported stories (haven’t read it); charticles on bookstore economics and commonly mispronounced author names have good information and can be processed quickly. But if the book review of the future has to include things like James Franco and Miranda July talking at each other about the pleasures and frustrations of being actors and writers at the same time, count me out. I happily let my subscription to Interview lapse a while back; at $18 for 12 issues, it counted among the dumbest things I’ve spent money on.

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

What’s the Matter With Shermer? or, How John Hughes Turned Me Against Dave Eggers

My Gen-X brain is slowly showing signs of memory loss, so I can’t recall exactly where I saw every film by the late John Hughes. But I’m pretty sure I caught both Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club in a movie theater in Forest Park, Illinois, not far from my hometown of Lyons. The location was meaningful to me. Forest Park is about 20-odd miles south of Northbrook—Hughes’ hometown, the filming location of much of his best-loved films, and the stand-in for the mythical town of Shermer, his upscale Yoknapatawpha of teenage angst.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is famous for being a kind of accidental tourism film for Chicago; the Art Institute of Chicago, in particular, never had it so good onscreen. For me, it also served as a tourism film for Chicago’s North Shore, home to some very nice houses (though the Bueller home in the film is in California) and some very good schools. Bueller’s mad dash home at the end of the movie through the backyards of Shermer required huffing and puffing through big, broad lawns, leaping hedges every hundred paces, occasionally cutting through streets that were sometimes politely interrupted by traffic. If I were to attempt the same trick at the time, I’d have to avoid the gravel trucks leaving the quarry a block away and jump chain-link fences (and cranky dogs) every 20 feet.

That’s a long way of saying that Bueller was one of my first introductions to class distinctions. Though Bueller and his friends shared some of the same geographical touchstones I did (I liked going to Cubs games and the Art Institute too), there was an ocean-wide gap between their lives and mine. Though Hughes films are celebrations of the teenage rebel, those rebels all achieve closure by embracing the upscale existence they spend their lives in anyhow. Bueller is going go back to his high school and listen to Ben Stein drone; Molly Ringwald‘s characters in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink land cute, upper-middle-class guys, despite her other-side-of-the-tracks mala fides in the latter; Judd Nelson‘s badass rebel in The Breakfast Club landed Molly Ringwald, in that film the epitome of North Shore comfort and assurance. Hughes films are mostly about finding love, but they’re also a little about finding the shortcut to upward social mobility.

It was, for an attendee of a high-school in a blue-collar suburb that had aggressively resisted any tax increases for schools in decades, a little grating. (None of which is meant to paint my adolescence, or where I grew up, as degraded or miserable; Chicago suburbs get economically worse the farther south you go, and I was pinned somewhere in middle. I did much better than cartons of cigarettes on Christmas, I got to go to a good college, and the promise of upward social mobility has worked out just fine for me.) After about ten years or so, John Hughes films and youth spent in a UAW household installed a few prejudices in me. So by 2000, when Dave Eggers published his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my brief on the book wasn’t, “Here’s something by a guy who used to work at the same paper I do,” but “Here’s something by a guy who grew up in Lake Forest.” My initial reaction to the very existence of the book was active dislike.

It seems a little silly, now—after all, plenty of my favorite writers were raised in perfectly nice homes more than a few rungs up the class ladder than I was. Would I have resented Michael Chabon for growing up in Columbia, Maryland, if I grew up in one of that town’s scruffier neighbors? At any rate, the only evidence of class resentment I can detect in my review of Staggering Genius is my urge to stress that Eggers lived in “Lake Forest, an affluent Chicago suburb.” I’m confident that my disappointment in the book was more a function of its contents than the feelings I brought to it, though it can be difficult for a reviewer to separate the two; I’m also certain that And You Shall Know Our Velocity! is an awful book because it is an awful book, not awful because somebody who grew up in Lake Forest wrote it.

If my prejudices were still deep-seated, I could keep myself busy for a while reading nothing but books about working-class families in the Midwest. That would make me sick of my own existence fairly quickly, though; one of the main pleasures of reading fiction is that it introduces you to lives you couldn’t experience, haven’t experienced. Those old Hughesian resentments haven’t reduced my admiration for Ward Just, who’s as North Shore as they come. The goal is to avoid thinking of people—as the poignant, fist-pumping note at the end of The Breakfast Club put it—“in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” If I’m being honest, I’ll concede that Hughes probably taught me a little bit about that too.

Speculative Markets

A friend of mine has fair-to-middling luck playing the McSweeney’s speculative market—snapping up whatever junk the publisher has put out, waiting a bit, then selling it at a tidy profit to some nerd who probably hasn’t read it either. (An eBay search suggests he won’t be retiring soon, but there are probably black markets for Eggersiana I haven’t heard about. Want my first edition of You Shall Know Our Velocity!? Make me an offer.) An article by Anne Trubek in the Utne Reader (originally published last fall in Good) studies the vicissitudes of collecting “hypermodern” literature, giving some space to McSweeney’s fare, with a few other options. William T. Vollmann isn’t one of them, though. Trubek writes:

Collecting is a risky game, though. Some scored with McCarthy, but followers of William T. Vollmann lost big in the 1990s. Ken Lopez, a bookseller who specializes in modern and hypermodern titles, told me of a failed attempt to corner Vollmann futures: “A small group of young guys got together to monopolize the market,” he says. “They would travel to book signings, buy 10 copies of Vollmann’s books for $17.50, and mark the prices up to $100.” But they overshot, and today the market is overstocked, supply having outstripped demand.

Roundup: Mission Accomplished

  • Dave Eggers speaks at TED about the success of his 826 Valencia project.
  • That’s not just a white suit–that’s a heavily armored ego-protecting shell. Tom Wolfe says the critiques of I Am Charlotte Simmons only prove he’s Pete Rose: “”I feel like Pete Rose did when his batting average dipped from something like .331 to .308, and he said, ‘That’s not bad for a guy entering his fourth decade.’ “
  • The latest issue of Bookforum is now online. Hard to figure out where to start but I gravitated to the Jhumpa Lahiri interview, in which she discusses immigrant fiction and the Indian writer pigeonhole:

I get frustrated by this tendency to flatten whole segments of the population, like the Indian immigrant or the Jewish immigrant. I know these are just words and phrases, but I think people tend to see these other groups as a people. They are “other,” and it’s harder to see the nuances and the variations because they’re just a group of people. I have been sensitive to it my whole life, and annoyed by it. As a writer, I didn’t set out to represent a certain group of people, but I acknowledge that I write about Indians and Indian Americans. And I hope at least in writing about these characters, you can prevent those generalizations.

The Problem With McSweeney’s

(The obscure indie-rock references will stop soon, promise.)

In the London Times Stephen Amidon addresses the joys and frustrations of the McSweeney’s diaspora. Yes, it’s irreverent and experimental, which is a good thing. But the McSweeney’s brand also winds up serving a very narrow coterie of readers, in part because that brand is defined by Dave Eggers‘ particular brand of irreverence and experimentation:

The ideal McSweeney’s reader (or writer) lives in Brooklyn, wears interesting T-shirts, has a blog he works on in coffee shops, and knows it’s cool to oppose globalisation but uncool to go on too much about it. And while grouping together such distinctive authors as Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Roddy Doyle and David Foster Wallace is about as easy as herding cats, most of the writers allied with McSweeney’s do share an occasional interest in mixing reportage and fiction, as well as in buffing the surfaces of their prose with italics, unusual fonts and antiquated typography.

Eggers lost me after the first 100 pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, once it became clear to me that all his rhetorical feints–the run-on sentences, the faux-narcissism-that-isn’t-really-faux, the italicized exclamations!–was doing more to obscure character and story than to reveal it. I kept trying, but McSweeney’s always felt a little like homework, The Believer always felt like My Weekly Reader, and Eggers’ Genius follow-up, You Shall Know Our Velocity! was so jumbled it barely qualified as a novel. I tried to extricate myself from this stuff, but as a Kirkus reviewer I still had to confront it–Yannick Murphy‘s Here They Come was so dispiriting and exhausting a novel that I couldn’t bring myself to even try to read What Is the What, despite all the acclaim it’s received.

McSweeney’s doesn’t seem to be run by editors so much as boosters, which reflects a certain contempt for readers. I very much want to have faith in what McSweeney’s does, because its support of writers, writing, tutoring is good and important. But those good efforts are lashed to a lot of bad writing–and if you alienate enough readers with awfulness, you’re destined to remain interesting only to the coffee-shop-blog set, when you ought to be transcending it.

[HT:The Literary Saloon]