My grandfather calls them “small stories,” not to make a joke but because the term “short stories” is unfamiliar to him. He reads fact-laden info-dumps like those by James Michener. In comparison to Alaska, all stories are small.
The fact is most people can tell a ring tone from a symphony, a sitcom from a feature film, and a postcard from the Sistine Chapel, but they don’t have any idea how to distinguish a short story from a long story, a novella from a novel, or, Derrida help them, a prose poem from a laundry list.
Dave Eggers, whatever you think of him and his accomplishments, has some ideas about what a short story can be, in what form it can be published, and how it might be read by people who might not otherwise read one (or at least by people who haven’t otherwise found the stories they’ve been looking for).
Eggers has been willful enough to find expression for his disenchantment with literary convention; he’s written out of frustration with the prevailing tastes of magazine and book publishing; and this is perhaps because he couldn’t find the wide acceptance (or control) he desired by publishing through the usual routes. Today, of course, his successes publishing-wise (as memoirist, self-publisher, collaborator, editor, designer, etc.) have continued to fuel his ambition to fill a need, express a sensibility, make a statement about the importance of words over images, of narrative over icon, and of stories and essays over celebrity gossip. He’s maintained his identification with the McSweeney’s mark but also collaborated with mainstream publishers (who published his first book in the first place). Despite what we might imagine to be significant temptation, he has resisted expansion and instead scaled his and McSweeney’s efforts to a manageable and even, one could argue, socially responsible size. He hasn’t let McSweeney’s grow too fast or too big for its own economic good, and he occasionally redirects profits to his literacy outfits like 826 Valencia in San Francisco (net proceeds from HWAH, according to the rights page, earmarked for said outfits).
Many young contrarian readers have appreciated all this, inhaled the McSweeney’s/Eggers oxygenated air, bought the lovingly crafted hardcovers, subscribed to the literary journal and The Believer magazine, and taken a magnifying lens to every text-drenched page. The young and frustrated writers among us were ready for such a sensibility as McSweeney’s represented, and so much so that one could mistake Eggers’ good timing for creating this market rather than responding to his own pent-up desires, which happened to coincide with an ache shared by many of his contemporaries.
It still feels as if it is all just beginning, as if one day the website like so many others could be discontinued, as if the journal could announce its last issue, as if the earnest playfulness and the giddy seriousness could evaporate as suddenly as they condensed (and there but for the grace of our readers go we all). Despite the dense thingness of so many McSweeney’s offerings, the thingness of the enterprise itself feels conditional, if only because the publishing world itself is so large and marauding a force. A rogue economic wave could surprise the inhabitants of this dreamy island, and we would all nod our heads at the unfairness of the world and at the hostility with which the rich old bastards have always resented the young upstart mavericks. Beginnings never last, and we are well past beginnings, but Eggers and McSweeney’s are still here, alive and kicking out another book onto the playing field of a mass culture that doesn’t know much what to do with a book. How do you turn this thing on anyway?
Eggers’ new book of fiction would look good in a preacher’s hands, and we can presume that the preacher’s faith would be literary in nature and idealistic in spirit. The flying mythological creature embossed on the rich black cover suggests hybrid loyalties: to realism and religion, to real animals and flights of fancy, to fact and fiction. The simple yet elegant design of the book embodies a first principle: books deserve to be treated well. The reader does not need a cover that is nothing more than a poor simulacra of a Hollywood movie poster to judge whether or not a book is worth reading. Let the book be a book, its idiosyncratic self. That said, flourishes come standard with this model: a silver ribbon bookmark stitched into the spine and, on the back cover, a snappy security band perfect, I have to add, for my son to cross-bow pens and chopsticks across the room.
Being a designer of books, I’m tempted to indulge the investigation further, but let’s get to the guts of the thing. So it is, as ever, laid out in Garamond type. That’s still a designy observation, isn’t it? Yeah, so here is another observation I should just get out of the way. Blank pages. Is this a design thing, too, or is it a content thing? The timing is unfortunate. Jonathan Safran Foer’s blank pages in his second novel have all but spontaneously combusted from the critical heat they’ve generated in the minds of mainstream reviewers. And didn’t we have Mark Danielewski and his House of Leaves five years ago? And has Gordon Lish called yet, asking for his blank-pages idea back? We must, I suppose, forgive the prankster. He tries, he tries.
Eggers, the accomplished writer, can develop a scene, describe a landscape, deploy an apt or, occasionally, forced metaphor or analogy, and he is brave enough to allow the animals to speak, the dead to narrate, and the tree and its shadow and even “the nickly shimmer” of the moon on water to have their says about life, the universe, and a given character’s poor judgment. The best stories were published first elsewhere: “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” in McSweeney’s 10; “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” in Speaking with the Angel; “Your Mother and I” in two places; and “Notes for a Story about a Man Who Would Not Die Alone” in Ninth Letter. The young characters in several of the stories seem to be at a loss about who they are, what they want, and why they are where they happen to find themselves (in Costa Rica and Scotland, unemployed and half in love). They appear in existential stories in which futility feels so everywhere that you can fail even in your desires; so you better find meaning or at least beauty in the simple existence of the natural world (“Quiet,” “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water”). The shortest stories, inserted like breathers between the longer ones, are the kinds of “small stories” that would perplex my grandfather but comfort readers of flash fiction and prose poems, stories in which a narrow emotional moment is isolated and described and then left well enough alone, without resolution or epiphany. (“Mother and I” hilariously spoofs Boomer idealism; this and “After I Was Thrown in the River” are the brightest comedic stories in the book.) Six stories deal generally with America’s place in the world and specifically with the ways Americans are perceived and/or received in other countries. Americans are envied, hated, challenged, resented, and pursued relentlessly as rich customers. “Another” reads like an oblique homage to a Paul Bowles story, and “When They Learned to Yelp” reads like an oblique reference to the way Americans “learned” the pain of tragedy after 9/11. The most ambitious of these stories, and the longest in the collection (60 pages), is “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly.”
The other long stories in the collection (“Oil-Wet Water,” “Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance,” “Quiet”) taxed my patience with characters who don’t lack desire but who certainly lack will. Long descriptive passages filled the vacuums left by these noncommittal folks, and the language had to come to the fore, which may be why the writing strains at times to be too interesting. In “Up the Mountain,” the plot takes over, its structure made explicit by the very title. The main character, Rita, still lacks the better part of will, which depends on self-knowledge, and the emotional core of the story is the lonely regret Rita suffers from being separated from two foster children she’d come to love, a separation she lacked the will to lift a finger to stop. “Mountain” keeps its pace moving, however, by what E.M. Forster long ago (Aspects of the Novel, 1927) identified, with chagrin, as “the only literary tool that has any effect on tyrants and savages”: suspense. We all “want to know what happens next,” and the only fault of a story as story is being predictable. Forster lamented the brute simplicity of sequential what-happens-next storytelling, but he understood that it could save even a poorly imagined piece of writing. The structure of the plot of “Mountain” provided suspense, and I read to find out what happened next. The characters were subservient to this structure, and the language quieted itself in service of this suspense. What disappointed me was what happened at the end.
The failing is a moral one. Just before her tourist party reaches the summit of Kilimanjaro, Rita goes into an altitude-induced hallucinatory unconsciousness not unlike, coincidentally, the protagonist of Forster’s Passage to India, except in this case the moment functions not as a climactic indictment but as a dramatic excuse. Rita escapes blame for the tragedy visited upon three of the many porters accompanying their outfit up the mountain because she’s literally, and morally, unconscious. Captivated by the beauty of the summit and by her own accomplishment, Rita then learns the fate of these porters, a fate that could have been prevented, and the truth shames her. It is a shame made possible by Rita’s moral distance from the events, and while once she was sick, now she is healthy, and, as naďve as she was on the journey up the mountain, she now runs ten hours down the mountain in the sudden horror of guilty renunciation. It is a simple dramatization of a naďve morality, but is it meant sincerely as Rita’s morality or is it meant symbolically as the see-no-evil morality of self-deluded Americans? If the latter, the reduction of character to a type rationalizes a moral shallowness, and the story still falls flat.
We are set up to forgive Rita by virtue of her own suffering, that is, her regret over giving up, without a fight, her foster children to the care of her parents. She was passive in this; a bad thing happened to her. On the mountain, this passive surrender recurs as a thematic parallel. Her attempts to achieve for herself are corrupted, again, by bad things happening. She is not an actor but someone to whom bad things happen, and, so disengaged, she is allowed this distance from which to be disgusted and guilt-ridden by the reality in which she is, nevertheless, complicit. She runs. Are we to sympathize? Bad things happen to good people, who run away.
In the symbolic reading of this story, Rita runs from what Americans specifically and the rich and capricious around the world in general have become: callously, if not criminally, reckless. Bands of casual colonialists from America, China and Germany exploit the natives for nothing so bold as the expansion of empire but rather for something as small as the expansion of self-esteem. And yet the costs of this endeavor, born by others, are remarkably similar: death. Searching at the level of grander themes like this, rather than at the level of character, a reader can choose to make the story interesting as a Heart of Darkness kind of allegory, albeit a tourist’s travelogue. But at the level of character, that is, for Rita herself, the climb up the mountain and the race down seem to have had little effect on the heart of the matter: Rita’s relationship with her family and herself, with her attempts to come to grips with her desires and her will to act on them. After her Kilimanjaro experience, she signs her name into a log book of those who have successfully made the ascent, and we are to feel that she confesses her role in the tragedy. But the effect is that she feels a complacent horror and has not yet achieved any moral development. Guilt won’t solve her problems, and her problems stem from too little self-indulgence, not too much. Guilt of such an unsophisticated nature will only sink her further into believing in the futility of effort.
Eggers has put his own name to this book of stories, and as a lavish object, the book preserves the words he cherishes so much. Let’s not forget, the book says, that we existed. At least not yet, not just now. And isn’t this preservation so much nobler than a sitcom or a music video? Doesn’t the world need more short stories? Yes, thanks, the world does. And still.