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My blank pages
Dave Eggers quiets down

The Eggers age is over. Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which did just about live up to its ironic title) arrived on the literary scene surfing a media tsunami, a wave that lasted long after the bestseller appearances and the Eggers-imposed interview restrictions. And along with McSweeney’s, the smart and droll and beautifully produced literary magazine he edits, Eggers animated a stampede of imitators and detractors. Imitators because no writer exemplified the late-’90s backlash against the pre-masticated stuff of consumer-culture media the way he did — even when he wrote about auditioning for The Real World, he was an antidote to the mainstream. Detractors because people perceived that the staggering part was the marketing genius that propelled Eggers, that he was just as guilty as playing the media game as anyone else and yet was able to make it appear otherwise.

But then this collection of short stories arrived, entirely without fanfare. No blurbs, no buzz, just a handsome volume with a griffin engraved on the cover. And though its humble appearance proclaims its modesty, the lack of pre-release hype and author sightings on the media radar have made it possible to appreciate the writing without getting bogged down in the Eggers cult of personality.

Which is a relief, because How We Are Hungry does include writing worth appreciating. It’s lost for the most part Heartbreaking’s pre–September 11th über-irony. Characters speak in shards; dashes finish statements almost as often as periods. It’s as if, in the culture of fear and change, thinking about what’s to come has rendered everyone stammering and inarticulate. To be articulate now — to be clear and clever — is to be unmindful of the current state of the world.

Many of the stories take place elsewhere: the Hebrides, Cairo, Costa Rica, Mount Kilimanjaro. Characters leave home (or perhaps more pertinently, their homeland) with the hope that distant lands will allow them to escape but also to connect. They inevitably find that reality looms elsewhere, too, that dropped thoughts and isolation follow them like hungry dogs. In the bleak "Quiet," beta male Tom visits his long-time one-armed crush, Erin ("she seemed like the future to me"), on the Isle of Skye, hungering for connection, sexual and otherwise. "Why do we pursue information that we know will never leave our heads?" Tom asks himself. He snares what he’s sought, but in a messy, disastrous way.

"Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly," the longest and most conventional piece, ends with a similar sense of disillusionment. Rita climbs Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of adventure tourists, but what happens on the mountain annuls any feeling of triumph over reaching the top. There’s an optimism in the light, explicitly political, and, yes, ironic "Your Mother and I" — "Well, we have to take the credit, your mother and I, for reducing our dependence on oil" and for making it "illegal to have more than one president from the same immediate family" — but it’s a future optimism: we face a long night before the dawn.

Six short-shorts serve as forgettable breathers. And in "The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water," a shallow encounter ensues when Pilar visits her old friend Hand (characters from Eggers’s novel You Shall Know Our Velocity!) in Costa Rica. Amid moments of quiet brutality and graceful scene setting, the narrator dips in to guide: "This story is not about Pilar and Hand falling in love"; "This story is equally or more about surfing." His omniscience feels gimmicky.

The concluding "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned," on the other hand, is told by a dog in Eggers’s galloping, exuberant prose. "I can go over a fence or a baby or a rock or anything because I’m a fast fast dog and I can jump like a fucking gazelle. Hoooooooo! Man, oh man." The book closes with the dog’s meditation on God, on humanity’s "calm held-together moments and also the treachery."

The next-to-last story, "There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself," does just that: it consists of five blank pages. A stunt. A goof. But also, perhaps, a nod to what Eggers has learned. He paraded his family tragedy to the world — two dead parents, a much younger brother, an older sister who killed herself. Now perhaps we should read these blank pages not as arch-clever prank but as a lesson learned. It’s not all about him anymore.

Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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