One day, though, she decided it was time to move to a town with a foghorn. [… S]he missed the sound, or believed that she missed the sound, and believed that moving back to a place featuring fog and horns and water and ships would shake her from the slump, the funk, the valley – whatever it was in which she currently found herself. The rest of this story is about the Bush administration. Have you heard, friends in England, that John Ashcroft, our attorney general, has authorized the FBI to visit the homes of those planning to protest the upcoming Republican convention?
Why I read it
Why is it I can never remember whether I’ve read anything by Dave Eggers before? Perhaps it’s because I perpetually associate his name with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which I bought second hand ages ago and which has become the archetypal Intellectual Literature That Sits Unread On My Shelf. I have read things by him, though – The Circle, and apparently this book too, at some stage, judging by the crease where its front cover has been folded open, though I don’t remember it at all. For this reason it has ended up on my Read or Donate shelf as part of the ongoing Great Book Cull of 2018.
More to the point about why I read it today: I’m 31 weeks pregnant and in the last 25 weeks my body has gone from running half marathons to being unable to look slightly to the left while sitting down without a screaming, stabbing pain flashing across my pelvis. I’ve chosen to respond to this by feeling really sorry for myself. This afternoon, faced with either an anxiety-inducing Japanese language assignment or sitting in the sun with a book, I chose the book, and I chose this book.
What it’s about
There are no less than 24 short stories in this 55-page book. According to the front matter, they were originally written for the Guardian in 2004, and indeed I just found them, still there in full text.
Some are like exercises in creative use of language, like What the Water Feels Like to the Fishes, where description and metaphor are pushed around like butter on toast and then smeared right off the edge. Some are sketches of intense emotional reactions to everyday events, like frustration at overhearing a parent give a wrong answer to a child doing a quiz in You Know How To Spell Elijah. Others, like Woman, Foghorn – quoted at the top – break the fourth wall for grim and glum political rants (pretty effectively in this one, I think).
But these and other stories in the collection also make me feel the following things:
- Mr Eggers is a very tightly-wound writer, keen to be as clever as possible all the time. (I see bad parts of myself here.)
- Sometimes this veers into him being very belittling of his characters for their perceived lack of sophistication, or seeming very forcedly wacky as per the squid who wants to be an accountant in Of Gretchen and de Gaulle.
- Is is really possible to get away with writing like this? And actually getting it published? I suppose this book proves it is. Could you still do it today? Or did he get away with it back in 2004 because it was fresh and original? Would I be laughed out of town if I tried it myself in 2018?
- Did I actually enjoy these stories? Or do I just kind of appreciate that they exist, so I can use them as a reference for Another Way To Experience Being Alive, or Another Way To Journal, or just Another Way To Take Out One’s Frustrations On A Page?
- Given his bleak rants about Bush, Cheney and that administration, has his entire soul now either melted or ossified in the Trump era?
Keep or donate?
I don’t know, which means (because this book is so slim, and looks so good next to the rest of the Penguin 70s collection) I’ll probably just keep it.
This book was mostly read on the back balcony, in the first sleeveless suntanny weather of the season.