How We Are Hungry satisfying

“Diagnosis would have made it all less interesting,” writes Eggers. Touché.
“Diagnosis would have made it all less interesting,” writes Eggers. Touché.
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Book Review: How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers, Vintage Canada

Here’s the thing about Dave Eggers: his work is really hard to summarize, because in doing so you inevitably lose something that’s very, very important about it. As one of the 14 unique narrators in How We Are Hungry, Eggers’ new collection of short stories, puts it, “diagnosis would have made it all less interesting.”

To begin with the mundane, Eggers is the author of two prior books and the editor of McSweeney’s, a literary magazine that consistently manages to combine writing talent with humour and originality.

But this is a writer whose previous major publications include a wildly original and funny memoir about raising his much younger brother after the deaths of both their parents—a work subtly entitled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, just to give you some idea of Eggers’ sense of humour—and an offbeat novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, about a youngish guy who travels around the world in a week with a friend to give away $32,000.

Even in those brief attempts at summarizing the writings of Dave Eggers, I’ve short-changed him. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for example, is so much more than your average memoir. It manages to be both heartbreaking and hilarious—sometimes in the same moment!—thanks to Eggers’ vivid, engaging prose and his finely honed eye for nutty details, for the random quirks that make a life unique.

The man ended the introduction to his memoir by saying, “Here is a drawing of a stapler,” and then including said drawing. As drawings go, it’s nothing special, but there it is. A stapler. Now, on with the show!

That’s the closest I can come to summarizing Eggers’ sense of humour, and giving you a sense of his command of style and voices is going to be even harder. A reviewer for the Globe and Mail said his short story collection is “full of the raw stuff of lives,” and while that’s very true—so true that I realized I couldn’t say it any better myself—it sounds too pompous and serious to encompass all of Eggers.

The stories in How We Are Hungry cover so much ground, it’s sometimes hard to keep up.

A semi-depressed American tourist rides a camel really fast in Egypt in the collection’s opener. That’s followed in quick succession by a woman looking for sex with an old friend in Costa Rica or Nicaragua—because to her,“Nicaragua sounded dangerous; she liked the word. Nicaragua! It sounded like some kind of spider. There it goes, under the table—Nicaragua!”—a man named Fish visiting a cousin who has just made his sixth suicide attempt and a timid guy staying with the woman he loves in Scotland.

And there’s much more.

These longer stories alternate with tiny blips of tales that are simply fragments of thoughts or lives. The awkwardly-named “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,” for example, is a simple two-page internal monologue of an unsettled American citizen. He’s uneasy. Aren’t we all?

Little is resolved in these stories, especially in the snapshots. You can’t come to Eggers looking for grand statements about life, the universe and everything. The collection’s most philosophical narrators are Pilar, the woman looking for uncomplicated sex in “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” and an Irish setter.

While surfing in Costa Rica, Pilar thinks about the people who see God in everything, and for a few moments “she was enchanted by those who proposed that God was in nature, was all around us, was the accumulated natural world.” On the next page, however, she decides the idea of one God has too many stringent conditions attached.

“The oil-wet water was not God,” she thinks. “It was not the least bit spiritual. It was oil-wet water, and it felt perfect when Pilar put her hand into it, and it kissed her palm again and again ... and why wasn’t that enough?”

Then she sits in the water on her surfboard until the sun sets.

The dog, meanwhile, drowns in a river—wait, don’t cry, it’s not sad! In Eggers’ wry prose, little seems truly sad.

Anyway, the deceased doggy finds himself in the afterlife, a peaceful and buttercup-filled afterlife, and he decides “the one big surprise is that as it turns out, God is the sun. It makes sense, if you think about it. Why we didn’t see it sooner I cannot say.” (And to catch the implicit humour, please don’t forget this is a dog speaking.)

“Everyone in the life before was cranky, I think, because they just wanted to know,” he says. That’s about the closest you get to philosophy in this collection. From the words of a dog.

The rest of it is about the ordinary stuff of living, and Eggers leaves it to you to draw your own conclusions, if you must.

But I dare anyone to draw sweeping conclusions from “Your Mother and I,” the collection’s only story written in the first person.

It’s a monologue delivered by a father to his daughter while they’re making nachos, all about how he and her mother righted all the wrongs in the world. They closed the hole in the ozone layer, they cured Parkinson’s and AIDS, they got rid of genocide and bipolar debates and they sent all the lobbyists to Greenland, to name a few of their many accomplishments.

It’s all delivered in a matter of fact tone, interspersed with requests to pass the cheese, that made me howl with laughter. Well, of course they got rid of oil and brought wind power to the world! But that was before your time, honey. Don’t mix the sour cream with the salsa!

I’m not sure why it’s so funny. It just is. And that, to me, is Dave Eggers.

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