I'm Afraid of Americans: Dave Eggers's Multinational Angst
I admit it: In the end, I’m still excited by the arrival of a new Dave Eggers book. Despite his decline in popularity in the last few years, I haven’t written him off yet. Like many others, however, I’ve allotted Eggers a lot of patience. Along with the rest of the literary world, in 2000 I was swept up in the hysteria surrounding his brilliant first book, the sweeping postmodern memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers’s achievement was enormous. Both of his parents had died, amazingly, one within a month of the other, leaving the author in his early twenties to raise his teenage brother. The book relates a heroic and winding tale of love between brothers, grief over sharing family secrets, and an examination of memoir writing from the inside out. At its worst, the book at times seemed like a bad David Foster Wallace imitation (a self-knowing meta-examination of an idea referring to another idea . . .); at its best, however, the book was Whitman-esque, with long, rambling, sweeping passages of free-flowing thought, ambition, vision, mysticism, imagining the power of love, determination, and escape.
After becoming the darling of the book world, it was inevitable that Eggers would not please everybody. His next endeavor was to launch the quirky literary journal McSweeney’s, known for its esoteric covers, breathtaking production values, and varied roster of young writers and artists, like Nick Hornby, Chris Ware, Marcel Dzama, Rick Moody, and Sarah Vowell. To many, McSweeney’s embodied all the worst parts of Eggers’s book: the too-cool, too-knowing, too-sarcastic edge of a smart-cracking wise ass.
Eggers’s first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, published in 2002 by his own publishing house, McSweeney’s Books, told the story of two friends blowing through an unexpected windfall of cash in a most peculiar way: by purchasing plane tickets that allow unlimited travel so long as you continue to travel in one direction. Over the course of a week, they proceed to travel all over the world, giving away their small fortune, obsessed with both the generousness of their mission and the need to keep moving to feel some sense of adventure and purpose in life. The book was filled with much the same urgency as Eggers’s first book, although such a longing and intensity separated from the tragic events of the author’s life came off as a bit pointless. Why were these middle-class Americans from the Midwest so guilty, so filled with anxiety, so obsessed with movement and momentum? Was it to escape despair? Despair over what? At least to this reader, it came off as angst for angst’s sake, which isn’t all that interesting.
Eggers’s latest book, a collection of short stories entitled How We Are Hungry, continues the themes explored in his novel. There are the obligatory Wallace-like clever story snippets, like “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself,” which is simply a few blank pages. It’s interesting for a moment, but it feels like a gimmick. The major stories in the volume are almost all primarily concerned with young Americans abroad, searching for an authenticity or vitality that they cannot attain back home in the states. The book is infused with the hope that travel can be revelatory and monumental; also hanging over these stories, however, is the depressing realization that you cannot run from your problems. The ennui suffocating these young people simply follows them over whatever oceans they have crossed.
The protagonist of “Another” rides through Egypt to be changed by visiting the pyramids; the monumental structures turn out to be disappointing, but riding freely through the desert on a horse provides a momentary release and thrill, although, of course, that can’t last forever. “Quiet” tells the story of two old friends meeting up in Scotland as their friendship escalates into romance; despite the beauty and mystery of the countryside, however, their troubling pasts come back to haunt them, ruining the life-altering possibilities of the trip. In “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” the main character reaches the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, only to be haunted the specter of the death of one of her companions. All of these Americans are running from their homes and their pasts; when it all comes crashing down on them in these foreign lands, they are left distraught and alone.
Eggers is a very talented writer, no doubt. At times, his ideas and form can be striking and profound. In another one of the book’s long stories focusing on ex-patriates, “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” the story (yet again) of two old friends from Wisconsin flirting with a sexual relationship as they meet up in Costa Rica to surf and lie in the sun, at various points cuts away to imagined dialogues between inanimate objects. Consider, for example, this exchange between God and the ocean, which takes place as the two friends walks towards the ocean to surf together:
GOD: I own you like the caves.
THE OCEAN: Not a chance. No comparison.
GOD: I made you. I could tame you.
THE OCEAN: At one time, maybe. But not now.
GOD: I will to you, free you, break you.
THE OCEAN: I will spread myself like wings. I am a billion tiny feathers. You have no idea what’s happened to me.
Eggers is obsessed by power, force, vitality. His characters play out these dramas in their heads, wanting so badly to translate such bravery and wisdom and goodness in their actions, but always falling short. Eggers’s artistic vision is that of the idealistic trying so hard to make a dent in the cold, hard world that we all must live in, but failing every time, despite their good intentions.
For me, How We Are Hungry suffers from the same unevenness that has plagued all of Eggers’s work to this point. When he’s good, he’s great: He can wrap you up in the swirl of ambition and pain and sincerity of young people wanting to make a difference in the world. As in the conversation between God in the ocean, he can echo the boldness and grandeur of Blake and Whitman, imaging humans as players in the grand drama of the universe. What’s lacking, however, is the why, the reason, the motivating factor for such strong desires and longings. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers railed against the universe like Job, feeling betrayed and jilted by a God that would let such horrible things happen to such good young people; in You Shall Know Our Velocity, his characters railed against the greed and selfishness and inertia of Western life, which comes off as smug and condescending and not all that compelling. In How We Are Hungry, Eggers continues along the same path, with earnest characters wanting to break out of whatever box they are in, to connect with others and with the universe, but who are suffering from not much more than, well, boredom. I’m very sad to say it, but to me Eggers seems like a one-trick pony. When the world first came across his style in his memoir, it flipped. Now that we’re seeing it yet again in his third book, perhaps we, like his characters, are beginning to get a bit bored.