Wells Tower is having himself a great week, and it stands to reason that when he’s having a good week, we’re all having one as well. After all, we get to ponder the potential of the script Tower wrote for You Shall Know Our Velocity, an upcoming film based on Dave Eggers’s novel of the same name. We also get to read Tower’s Garden & Gun piece on “the nervous work of owning – and finally loving – a Chihuahua.” And as though that wasn’t enough already, we also get to savor Tower’s gripping feature story in the latest GQ, “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?”
If every book review you read about The Circle makes some reference to 1984, it is not simply because all book reviewers are creatively exhausted, overworked sheep, but because Dave Eggers practically leaps off the page of his new novel to remind us of its lineage. When one of the founders of the Circle, a technology company with designs at market and world domination, sits down for a scripted come-to-Jesus with an errant employee –our heroine, Mae–three phrases appear on the screen behind them, arranged on the page the very same way readers first encountered that other trifecta of slogans almost 65 years ago.
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
When Mae inadvertently witnesses a modest marital handjob between her parents and simultaneously broadcasts it to an audience of thousands, her distress is soon quelled by the knowledge that “it would be only a matter of time. They would find each other, soon enough, in a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame…” Or, in Orwellian terms, “the place where there is no darkness.” Mae has her own Golden Country, the serene waters around San Francisco, where she kayaks among seals and prole-y old-timers who live on a barge. The social media activity of Mae and her fellow Circle employees is aggregated, and each employee receives a score, or “PartiRank.”
In 1984, the Party has dispensed with the idea that the current state of affairs has any relation to the common good. As O’Brien tells Winston Smith during the course of his re-education:
Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A word of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being tramped upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain…If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
The rhetoric of the Circle is the reverse of this. Homelessness, pedophilia, low voter turnout, the pressing problem of not knowing how much sand is in the Sahara — the Circle is on top of all of these. Sharing is caring! However, the result is exactly that which O’Brien promises for the citizens of Oceania: “Already we have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman…in the future there will be no wives and no friends.”
Unsurprisingly, Mae’s unwitting broadcast of her parents’ sex life to the universe causes them to flee their home and suspend contact. Mae’s own re-education into a proselytizer for total transparency (read: zero privacy) puts an abrupt, grim end to her relationship with her technophobe ex-lover. Mae’s romantic life eventually devolves into watching the premature ejaculations of a fellow company striver, and then providing him with a user experience rating.
1984 is what the The Circle asks to be identified with, and I appreciated Eggers’s attempt to contextualize, his method of achieving the same end through different rhetoric. At several points, I was also reminded of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, probably one of the greatest young people books of all time. When newly employed Mae is admonished by a communications staff member for not setting up her “company social account” and fails to grasp the importance of the “extracurricular” use of social media, she expresses her contrition thus: “I’m sorry to have misstated my feelings” — this is right out of The Giver’s system of apologies for failure to use precise language, for inconveniencing classmates, for being late, for causing anguish.
The creepy nightly sharing-of-feelings, the Socratic-style instructional conversations, the ostensibly benevolent paternalism of The Giver are also a feature of The Circle, as here, during the conversation between Mae and Circle head Eamon Bailey (or “Uncle Eamon”) that marks Mae’s transformation from lone rule-breaker to proponent of collective onscreen life:
“I have a question, Mae. Do you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?”
“Better. Without a doubt.”
‘When you’re alone, unwatched, unaccountable, what happens?’
“Well, for one thing, I steal kayaks.”
The audience laughed in a sudden bright burst.
“Seriously. I do things I don’t want to do. I lie.”
The best-known dystopian novels show the horrors of society through the futile resistance of one soul, who is deviant through some quirk of temperament, a touch too much alcohol in their incubation solution, an ability to See Beyond. They don’t always have to be likable, but they have to be struggling. For the first bit of The Circle, it seems that Mae harbors some form of this leading-man deviance. She kayaks alone. Before she comes to work at the Circle, it is not her custom to Zing (Eggers’s version of Twitter) about everything that happens to her. She seems to understand that it is not in keeping with HR best practices to be called to the carpet for failing to RSVP to a “brunch for all staffers who had demonstrated an interest in Portugal.” When Mae so quickly morphs from good German to the worst German, it is jarring because it is not in keeping with the form, and because it offends our sensibilities as reasonable people.
We know some things about why Mae might go over to the dark side, namely, that she has skin in this game. Eggers has made her into the American Millenial everywoman, with everywoman’s attendant problems. She has a $234,000 education from Carleton College, and is on the hook for some not insignifacant portion thereof. Mae’s $62,000 starting salary at the Circle allows her to make loan payments and pay rent on a a dingy shared apartment. Mae’s dad, a former parking garage owner, has multiple sclerosis, and her parents spend most of their time managing his care and dealing with the insurance company, which, with the conveniently topical shittiness of insurance companies across the nation, has decided to drop his medication from its list of pre-approved drugs. When Mae is able to get her parents on the Circle’s health plan (which, it goes without saying, transcends Cadillac status; it’s the Maybach — no, the Tesla — of health plans), this plot device becomes the by-then superfluous tether tying Mae to the Circle. This is the real-life stuff that undergirds the plot of The Circle, but like other elements of this novel, it seems to have been built quickly and clunkily enough that it doesn’t quite feel load-bearing.
We are meant, I think, to relate to Mae. But by the time Mae is leading a world-wide electronic manhunt for her ex-boyfriend to demonstrate the efficacy of the Circle’s new SoulSearch program, when she is saying “Release the drones!” in “a voice meant to invoke and mock some witchy villain,” when she is proposing that every American be required to have a Circle account and transact all their civic business therewith, when this all seems to have happened within six weeks of her date of hire (serious question: is she still making $62,000 when she sketches out the annihilation of liberty?), Mae has left everywoman territory. Retroactively, her parents’ plight seems too unsatirical: if it is to scale with the excesses of the Circle’s plotting, her mother should have Type II Diabetes and be a veteran who lost her VA benefits and gave birth to octoplets after an unethical doctor implanted all of the fetuses. Her dad should have lost his garage due to a situation involving mortgage-backed securities and Islamic fundamentalism.
The Circle occupies an awkward place of satire and self-importance. What it does very well is create a catalogue of awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak. Uncle Eamon is legitimately avuncular and creepy. When Mae is chastised for failing to Zing about her hobbies, a colleague says “‘Just kayaking? Do you realize that kayaking is a three-billion-dollar industry? And you say it’s ‘just kayaking’! Mae, don’t you see that it’s all connected? You play your part. You have to part-icipate.'” And this stuff is often very funny. (These days, though, it’s hard to write a novel that can rival the comedy gold of reality. This week, Nathan Heller has a piece in The New Yorker about San Francisco’s startup culture: “The company had needed to figure out whether to spend its limited budget on beef jerky to keep around the office or 401k plans for the staff. ‘We put it to a vote: ‘Do you want a 401k or jerky?…The vote was unanimously for jerky. The thought was that well-fed developers could create value better than the stock market.'” Or this gem: “Serge was a software professional who, in his spare time, led people into deeply meditative states from which they could reëxperience earlier lives. Some people found that passing through past lives eased their fears of death, Serge told me that evening.”)
Orwell wrote 1984 from a knowledgeable position, as a person who had invested himself corporeally in the political system that he was later moved to skewer in his writing. Eggers, meanwhile, has been very open about his position vis–à–vis the facts of tech culture, a position that might be stated as IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. There is some merit to the idea that the public perceptions of a company, particularly the storied, insular, tech giants, are as good as reality, but we wonder if Eggers is the right person to explain the specifics of why technology is scary. Mae’s nighttime kayak joyride, for example, seemed a strange catalyst for her re-education as an enthusiastic Circler. San Francisco residents are very sensitive to the perceived entitlement of the tech class, and spend the days reflexively muttering “Google bus” under their collective breath; when Mae borrows the kayak, a spontaneous, independent, un-Zinged act that brings about her meeting with Uncle Eamon, I was conditioned by my resentment to see it as evidence that she was starting to become a typical tech douche, who feels entitled to “disrupt” the rules of a lowly kayak rental facility. The fact that this is perceived as a major transgression at the Circle, and the Circle’s general obsession with “finding community” and normalizing behavior, rang a little bit false. (My own position, admittedly, is equally ignorant.)
Eggers’s anxieties about technology are not new. In his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, now more than a decade old, Eggers’s affable narrator and his sidekick, Hand, met a man in Senegal who “worked in cellphones.”
Something involving GPS and cellphones and how soon enough, everyone would know–for their own safety, he insisted, with a fist softly pounding the table, in a way he’d likely done a hundred times before — where everyone else in the world was, by tracking their cellphone. But again: for good not evil. For the children. For the children. For grandparents and wives. It was the end of an epoch, and I didn’t want to be around to see if happen; we’d traded anonymity for access. I shuddered. Hand, of course, had goosebumps.
The children are invoked again in The Circle — concern for their well-being given as the motivation for a program of tagging and tracking that will eventually lead to an orgasmic union of state and corporate interests, the whole of a person’s data existing within one platform and operating system.
Eggers’s first novel is a humble tale about buddies and grief that channels a really lovely Bellovian style of joyful despair (“I look at the file, and its contents scream at me in a voice containing thousands of murders in unclean homes”). Perhaps the style of The Circle is a subversive comment on the uniformity that will be visited upon us by the tech overlords–revisiting his first novel renders the prose of his latest rushed and merely functional by comparison. “‘Hi Mae,’ a face said as it floated, gorgeous and smiling, toward her” hearkens back to Mae’s first day, when she encountered “a beautiful young head floating atop a scarlet scarf and white silk blouse.'” When Mae meets her team leader, she sees a “handsome man, compact and tidy.” Eggers’s prose has felt more alive than this.
His relationships have felt more alive, too. You Shall Know Our Velocity is founded on friendship, and friendship is likewise a central plot element of The Circle. Mae is brought on board by Annie, who has rapidly risen through the ranks of the Circle. Annie and Mae met in college and formed an “extraordinary bond, something like friends, something like sisters or cousins who wished they were siblings and would have reason never to be apart.” This turns out, though, to be a fickle sort of friendship; when Mae comes to occupy permanent Employee-of-the-Month status at the Circle, the friendship immediately falls apart. (You know. Ladies be resenting.) If this novel is meant only to serve as a savage farce, a detail like this isn’t important. But we don’t always know where we are in this novel, what sort of expectations are reasonable. A lot of it feels farcical, but when you invoke 1984, the implications are deadly serious.
One of my favorite moments in 1984 is when Winston Smith sits down to perform the physical manifestation of his Thoughtcrime by putting pen to paper, and is overwhelmed by the prospect.
How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.
In that spirit, I will share that I write all my reviews as Gmail draft messages. While I was writing this one, my netbook finally gave up the ghost and I wailed and gnashed my teeth and hauled an eight-year-old iBook out of the closet and again wailed and gnashed my teeth when I was unable to download Google Chrome because the operating system was too old, and I actually cried because it felt like nothing in my life was working. I unwind from a busy work day by compulsively heart-ing the photos on my friends’ and acquaintance’s Instagram feeds. My PartiRank score, if I say so myself, would not be negligible. The chilling implications of this novel were not at all lost on the part of myself that asks the other part why I know that I have three fewer Twitter followers than the last time I checked, and why I care.
There are noble impulses behind this novel–to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain–and it basically delivers on these fronts. But The Circle boldly asks us to reckon it alongside one or more of the most, to use the odious word, impactful, novels of the 20th century, and it’s not bold enough to carry that weight. It seems to hedge its bets, so that it is just a little bit sad, a little bit funny, a little bit scary, and a little bit thin. A little bit beta, if you will.
A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)
I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.
Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.
1. The Long Title
When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July’s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming You Are One Of Them. Ramona Ausubel’s debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
If Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.
A decade later, Sean Carman’s “Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.
5. The plate drops!
Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:
They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!
I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)
It’s a business-school truism that great leaders make for messy successions. Not only are their shoes hard to fill; no boss likes to contemplate his or her own obsolescence. (Think of Steve Jobs. Hell, think of King Lear.) And though its masthead is more likely to have graduated from Brown than from Wharton, the literary magazine is as subject as any other enterprise to the general principle. William Shawn’s 35-year streak as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, for example, yielded to the comparatively brief reigns of Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Roger D. Hodge’s tenure at Harper’s, following the second long Lewis H. Lapham regime, lasted all of two years.
Even amid such tough acts to follow, the case of George Plimpton stands out. As the longtime editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton did the traditional things imposingly well. He charted the magazine’s direction. He developed features. He cultivated and supported good writing. But he also, through his journalistic talents and his presence on the social scene, expanded our idea of what an editor could be: founder, ringmaster, patron, host, impresario, fundraiser, cheerleader, public face, presiding spirit, and living embodiment of the brand. Though slender of frame, he cast a big shadow.
Upon Plimpton’s death in 2003, Brigid Hughes, then the managing editor, was tapped to lead the magazine. She was soon shown the door (a circumstance which led to the founding of A Public Space, with the help of a cadre of writers and donors loyal to Hughes) and the journalist Philip Gourevitch slotted into the role, somewhat against type. Gourevitch’s Paris Review has been more consistently appealing than one might have expected it to be. (A great reporter does not always a great editor make.) But, given that Gourevitch has been more of a caretaker than a visionary, it was no great surprise to learn in November that he would be stepping down to focus on his own writing…leaving The Paris Review searching for its fourth editor-in-chief in seven years.
The good news is that the pool of available talent is probably larger now than it has been in years. I’d happily read a Paris Review run by former Spy editor Kurt Andersen, who writes well, is interested in everything, and seems to have a Rolodex the size of a card catalog. Likewise Dan Menaker. In the wake of Hodge’s departure from Harper’s last month, his name has been thrown around as well. If I was on the search committee, I’d certainly be looking at Keith Gessen, who, though young, is something of a scholar of the little magazine. Or The Paris Review could again try to hire in-house. (Having had a piece edited by Meghan O’Rourke, who pulls double duty with Slate, I’d hire her for just about anything.)
Finding the next Plimpton, however, is more than a matter of editorial acumen. The Plimptonian editor must be out in the world. She cuts a figure. She makes fireworks, and shoots them off, too. Tina Brown, now of The Daily Beast, and Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter have certainly learned a thing or two from Plimpton, but the only editor currently working in the world of little magazines who fulfills the polymathic model is Dave Eggers. And so, as absurd as it may sound prima facie, I’d like to propose that Eggers is the best candidate for editorship of The Paris Review. And, somewhat counterintuitively, that hiring him for the job might be as good for Eggers as for the magazine.
Eggers is an entrepreneur of distinction, a gifted fund-raiser, a networker, a talent scout, a celebrity, a philanthropist, and an accomplished graphic designer. Moreover, he has a particular editorial capacity that’s always in rare supply: the capacity for vision. At his first two magazines – Might and (especially) McSweeney’s – Eggers helped to distill into literary form the sensibility of those who came of age after The End of History…and before history unceremoniously resumed. Whimsical, highly aestheticized, conspicuously casual, reverent of childhood and its signifiers, bound by the dialectic of irony and sincerity, the style of McSweeney’s has become the style of post-post-Modernism. It is No One Belongs Here More Than You and Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, yes, but also American Apparel and Avenue Q, the films of Michel Gondry and the career of Michael Cera. It is vast swaths of Echo Park and the Bay Area and Brooklyn.
The first obvious objection, then, to the marriage of Eggers and The Paris Review comes from Eggers’ side of the aisle: he already has a magazine. But the truth is that McSweeney’s (reportedly intended to have a forty-eight issue run, followed by a long hiatus) has, in its middle age, begun to run up against its built-in limitations. One need not slight the magazine itself (the recent “Panorama” issue, a loving tribute to the print newspaper and a manifesto on its behalf, reportedly sold out), or rehearse the whiplash speed at which subculture becomes mainstream, to feel that McSweeney’s some time ago made the move from innovation to institution.
The Paris Review, too, is an institution, but one with a broader mission and a broader potential audience – a place where readers of McSweeney’s, readers of Newsweek, and readers of The New York Review of Books might meet and mingle en masse. And because its appeal is less bound up with youth, it might offer Eggers, now pushing 40, new and different challenges…even as McSweeney’s continued under the able hands that one sort of imagines mostly run it now anyway.
The second obstacle to the union is that Eggers, like Gourevitch, is a writer, and writing takes time away from editing. But here, too, Eggers, for all his successes, seems like a man in need of a jolt. His literary talent has always recalled for me David Foster Wallace’s description of the tennis player’s physique: hypertrophied in places and underdeveloped in others. This is true to some extent of all writers, but truer of Eggers than of, say his kind-of contemporary (and sometime collaborator) Zadie Smith. With impressive consistency, his books display visual acuity, inventive turns of phrase, and a fine ear for dialogue. Most importantly, they are full of compassion. But they also betray a countervailing tendency toward solipsism that the home crowd around McSweeney’s has been unable or unwilling to call Eggers on, and that has held him back from being the novelist he seems to aspire to be. Which may be a way of suggesting that Eggers is still in his literary adolescence.
This solipsism expresses itself as constraint. There is, on the surface, a kind of airless stylization of the prose, all those floating pronouns and studied flatnesses. More deeply, there is the constraint solipsism imposes on plot and drama – on the interaction of characters, and thus, on their development. Of Eggers’ longer narrative works, three are more or less nonfiction, one is a rewrite of a children’s book, and two (You Shall Know Our Velocity and Away We Go) are lashed to picaresque conceits that substitute vignette for scene and propulsion for plot.
Most recently, these two forms of constraint – micro and macro – converged in the disappointing novelization, The Wild Things. Max goes to the island. Max does some stuff. Max does some other stuff. Then Max comes home. At no point in the book does Max, or his writer, feel the sense of discovery and possibility we saw in Spike Jonze’s filmed sprint through the trees – or that marked the finest passages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The oddity of this is that Eggers is profoundly interested in other people. His best book overall, to my mind, has been What is the What, based on the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. (I have not read Zeitoun, which seems to follow a similar strategy in telling the story of a Hurricane Katrina survivor.) This reportorial interest in the wider world is one that The Paris Review could nourish, even as it exposed Eggers to an even wider audience – one that might be less satisfied with his tics, and more demanding of writing in proportion with his enormous gifts.
Whether or not Eggers seriously considers throwing his hat into the ring, The Paris Review could certainly benefit from having an editor of his stature. The task that awaits Gourevitch’s replacement may be more daunting than that which awaited him in 2005. In addition to hosting parties, raising funds, tending to the needs of writers, and serving as the public face of The Paris Review, the next editor will have to make the case to readers that, in this era of YouTube and the iPad, the bound literary quarterly is still worth their time and money. That’s a mission Dave Eggers has already proven himself to be committed to. And The Paris Review, for nearly 60 years, has proven its commitment to the kind of great American writing I’d like to see more of from Eggers. Odds are these two commitments will be pursued on parallel tracks. But wouldn’t it be great if they could meet?
A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What’s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)