Dave Eggers' new book of short stories is formatted like a Moleskine notebook - elastic strap, cloth bookmark and all. As I recorded preliminary impressions of it in an actual Moleskine notebook, I was struck by how germane this crossover between literature and life has been to Eggers' work. He exploded onto the literary scene with his ubiquitous meta-memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which he followed with the flawed yet passable novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! While the Eggers' exuberantly self-conscious style was endearing when applied to his life story, it seemed overly precious in the endlessly repetitive Velocity, which was marred by a paucity of actual ideas. Does the author have any stories worth telling besides his own?
As a stalwart defender of Heartbreaking Work, I still have the urge to answer in the affirmative, but the wildly erratic How We Are Hungry isn't making it easy for me. The specter of American guilt overshadows even the stories that don't explicitly address it - you'll find Americans feeling guilty, frightened, ignorant, or all three in "The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water," "Another," "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," "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly," and "When They Learned to Yelp" - and one wishes for a more sophisticated, less didactic take on this intimately familiar literary terrain, which Eggers himself already mined to depletion in Velocity. Instead, the reader gets a sense that the stories are the author's late-blooming epiphanies about globalization and its discontents, more reactionary Holden Caulfield than proactive Robert Stone. Not that the collection is entirely without merit. Do you want the good news or bad news first?
Okay, we'll begin with the good news: Many of the stories have a sort of low-grade charm, and the scenic foreign locales in which Eggers places his cookie-cutter Americans provide a pleasant escapist quality. "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly," about the various motives of a group of American tourists hiking Kilimanjaro, works from start to finish - it's graced with believable characters and a traditional man-vs.-nature narrative, with conflicts to resolve, suspense, a discernible plot arc, and intelligible imagery. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, which is refreshing in the fragmentary context of the book proper. And "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned," told from the first-person perspective of a dog, conjures an appropriate sense of wonder, right up until its literally incredible finale.
The bad news: The remainder of the collection ranges from mediocre to pointless to downright terrible, and the good bits can't compensate for the overreaching, red-herring laden prose. One can almost sense the author saying, "Oh, wait, these stories aren't really about anything," and peppering them with meaningless formal tics and absurdly exaggerated imagery to compensate for their essential incompleteness. A good example of the former appears in "The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water," which gains a few points for the reappearance of Velocity's likable protagonist, Hand. In what's otherwise a run-of-the-mill exploration of the treacherous line between friendship and romance, Eggers cuts in "conversations" such as the following:
GOD: I own you like I own the caves.
THE OCEAN: Not a chance. No comparison.
GOD: I made you. I could tame you.
THE OCEAN: At one time, maybe. But not now.
GOD: I will come to you, freeze you, break you.
THE OCEAN: I will spread myself like wings. I am a billion tiny feathers. You have no idea what's happened to me.