I’m not at all acquainted with the genre of this title. Ever since early college, I’ve been on an off-and-on mission to read everything I should read, which is to say, old, famous stuff, and in the midst of pursuing the fogey classics it gets hard to keep up with what’s new and good and recommended. Besides for looking at “New & Recommended” sections in bookstores or reading reviews on the Rumpus.
So recently, I read two short story collections by reputable, living authors, How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers and Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and I gave both 5 stars on Goodreads. High praise, compared to my 4 stars for mega-classic Jane Eyre.
(I should also qualify that Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help was actually written the year I was born. So, not new at all. I just didn’t discover her until like three months ago. If I haven’t read it [and it’s at least set in the post-VCR age] it’s new to me!)
Anyway, as much as I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting acquainted with literary giants—people like Faulkner and Austen and Orwell—there’s something doubly inspiring about reading something recent. New fiction. It’s more accessible. It’s more relatable. It almost feels like something I could write, if I was just as splendidly observant and marvelously eloquent as people like Eggers and Moore.
Today, Dave Eggers. Broke down and read him after what felt like years of 826 Valencia press and McSweeney’s FB article shares and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius references (I can’t get over that title and its fabulous superlatives), not to mention the fact I know at least two people who have worked with him (starstruck!). This short story collection was to be my introduction to Eggers because, in my opinion, short stories make great introductions. They’re short.
What Dave Eggers lacks in simplicity of titles (see story #2: “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”), he makes up in simplicity of prose—not too simple, just spare, and often lovely.
The collection, as far as it has an ongoing theme, is a compare and contrast between human and animal nature, except that thirteen stories are about the former, and only one is about the latter. In the first thirteen stories we meet numerous characters who agonize and equivocate, who live cerebrally and try to fix careers and relationships or plan the minutiae of a perfect life or death (“Notes for a Story of a Man who Will Not Die Alone”).
My favorite of these is also the longest: “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” about Rita, a woman who has let life happen to her, including giving up custody of two foster children that she wanted to adopt because it was just easier; and Rita’s uncertain, somewhat reckless resolution to climb Mount Kilimanjaro on an adventure tour for Western yuppies. The story arc is unexpected— after the trials and travails of climbing the mountain, which take up most of the narrative, there is a brief, transcendent moment at the summit where Rita’s life seems to make sense and the world seems to harmonize. This could have been the end of the story. But the harmony abruptly breaks apart when she learns from her fellow travelers that, unbeknownst to her at the time, three native luggage boys had perished in their sleep the night before due to wet weather conditions and a faulty tent. Suddenly, everything is terrible:
“Yesterday she found herself wanting something she never wanted. To be able to tell Gwen that she’d done it, and she wanted to bring J.J. and Frederick a rock or something from up there, because then they’d think she was capable of anything finally and some day they would come back to her and—oh God she keeps running, sending scree down in front of her, throwing rocks down the mountain, because she cannot stop running and she cannot stop bringing the mountain down with her.” (199)
In this way, each of the thirteen stories is messy and inconclusive and the protagonists flawed, indecisive. But the fourteenth story is about a dog. “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” is told from Steven the pet canine’s point of view. He loves to run. He doesn’t like squirrels. This is his story.
“When I run I turn like I’m magic or something. I can turn like there wasn’t even a turn. I turn and I’m going so fast it’s like I was still going straight. Through the trees like a missile, through the trees I love to run with my claws reaching and grabbing so quickly like I’m taking everything.
“Damn, I’m so in love with all of this.” (206)
As foreshadowed in the title, Steven dies at the end of the story. On a race through the forest with his doggie friends, he slams into a low-hanging branch and falls into the river. His spirit sleeps for six days before he wakes up in heaven, an experience he embraces with as little apprehension as he did life. It’s not complicated at all.
It’s a little gimmicky to tell a story from the point of view of a dog, but Eggers’ gleeful manipulation of the prose—like a child’s, but commanding, and never sacrificing clarity—makes the story a joy to read. He also takes a somewhat clichéd premise—basically, that Steven the dog has it all figured out, so what the hell are we doing?—and still makes it feel like a worthwhile life lesson. Especially set in opposition to the previous story and Rita’s halting quest for an undefined happiness.
Eggers has moments of pretention, with his long titles and his funny forewords and whatnot, but he’s such a brilliant writer that it doesn’t matter much. I’m still a little daunted by A Heartbreaking Work’s sheer size, but I plan to continue to pursue his oeuvre.
In the meantime, I’m regularly checking out Eggers’ 90 Days, 90 Reasons, a project he co-founded to recount the reasons to re-elect Barack Obama. Occasional McSweeney’s contributor and Zuckerberg evil twin Jesse Eisenberg’s essay wasn’t up to par with some of his other work (see: Jeremy Lin Has Helped Me Through Some Pretty Tough Times, written at the height of Linsanity), but I really enjoyed Reza Aslan’s and Roxane Gay’s, on world engagement and hope, respectively. Eggers is a literary rock star.