Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dave Eggers and the Crowded Language

It's been one of those weeks when there's little else to do after the laundry is done than to stare for long periods at the bookshelves and make provisional decisions about to keep on hand and at the ready and what to box up or bag and take to the local used bookshop for trade credit, which means trading in old used books with all my dog eared ages and marginalia for new used books, with dog earing and marginalia rendered by people I've probably never met.Sometimes the mind seems like nothing less than a noisy circular file, a recycling bin of metaphors that are parted out and tweaked to meet new situations which one's brain has to accommodate, lest the world unhinge and roll down some celestial bowling lane. The "maximalist" writers, authors who cannot tell you the time without addressing what's amiss in our insular cosmologies, have not fared well in these separations. Where minimalist , spawned by Papa Hemingway's tight, skinflint style and bouyed by Raymond Carver's art of of making the convolutions of alcoholic despair crisp and lean as polished steel rods, sought the fewest possible words to express the smallest though deepest wounds to the psyche, maximalist are intent on exhausting every observation, each crazy idea, pursuing every tangent and tributary as it marginally relates to what would loosely be termed a plot. There are no story arcs in these tellings, only the literary equivalent of urban sprawl. It is often times genius untouched by a good editor's sane blue pencil.

I exchanged the David Foster Wallace tome Infinite Jest last week for a half dozen John Updike and John Cheever used paperbacks, vainly staking my claim for writers of longish sentences who are actually revealing something hidden in human behavior rather than running away from it with the distractions rudderless prose potentially affords you. I prefer my shaggy dog stories confined to movies these days, which one can witness in The Big Lebowski , written and directed by Rob and Ethan Coen. Wallace has his uses, and at times hits pay dirt (Oblivion, his recent collection of stories, gives one hope that he has abandoned the Exhausting Novel and is ready, just maybe, to use shorter sentences), but his books over all tend to rob the room of the air I need to read better books. Each book he's written since Genius has been variations on a jet stream of language, a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize the way many in his generation actually talk, rapidly, long word ribbons filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen. Or, more on point, that a point is about to be made,all of this, virtually all (no exaggeration) presented with an unmerciful and even arrogant lack of emphasis.Experience is spoken of as if everything regarding storyline depended solely on the present tense, all memories, history, details, relegated to the same junk pile of references that are never gone through or made to construct a nuanced effect or make a scene that achieves emotional complexity. There is, however, clutter, an amassed set of things brought together indiscriminately, pack rat like. Clutter, however, isn't the same as complexity, and the sorry state of Egger's writing is that there is no inner life in his characters--Genius, being a memoir, is that rare exception in his body of work--that gives you a sense of inner life and struggle on the character's part. Theodore Dreiser was a less adroit stylist, perhaps,but An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie particularly made up for the lack of grace with massive amounts of humanity that made us think about nagging notions of Destiny, Free Will and Duty . Dreiser's topics remain with us, and what he offered us remains part of that discussion. Eggers The suggestion that he read Tom Wolfe, pre-Bonfire of the Vanities,is well taken, since Wolfe in his journalism showed away to adjust and mold his style around the subject matter. A more recent model for Eggers to go to school on is Esquire writer Mike Sager's collection of magazine pieces Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, where the writer brings a wonderfully subtle literary personality to his portraits of spectacular American failures at the margins of the mainstream. Eggers writes well enough in short bits, patches, a paragraph hither and yon, but he does so without shining any light, nor casting any shades of darkness for that matter; what the world doesn't need is a political satire that cannot convince you that it's an exaggeration of the real thing.

Jonathan Franzen, another mad bomber of the language whose weighty and over worded The Corrections won praise and best seller status for a turgid family comedy that everything going for it except the niceties of heart and editing, is presently at the top of the next stack of titles that will find their way to the used book dealer, to be either sold, traded in donated outright. Franzen, remember, isn't a bad writer, but he is an under edited one, since their are sentences and even whole paragraphs in The Corrections that just give up in the middle, or wrecked like speeding cars meeting head on as he tries to manage one metaphor after another with which he attempts, over and over, to contain the perversions and anomalies of American family life in as short a space as possible. Not graceful stuff, this, and an astute editor would have blue penciled the offending pages out of the final book, reducing its bulk by at least a fourth. How to Be Alone, a fine collection of essays he published two years ago about the reading life, fares better at sentence management and poise, but one wonders of what kind of writer Franzen turns out to be if what he composes remain congested fiction or essays essentially praising himself and those few like him for being introverted, geeky and bookish. It's an act that gets old, a voice that wears out. I intend to trade him in for some Tom Robbins, a novelist who can have fun with his convolutions, although he is not without risk. The cutie-pie , Zap Comix surrealism and the far flung similies (here's a writer still in competition with Raymond Chandler!) will often times crowd out development; as a friend once remarked about The Grateful Dead, sometimes his writing amounts to "what the fuck"? In one instance it can be something spirtual along the lines of uttering "let go and let God", meaning that one needs to pick their battles wisely, but on the other hand, the other hand being huge palm upraised as if asking for a five spot, is that it simply amounts to defeat
by way of being too spaced out. Robbins likes to drive the car only so far, and is likely to take his hands off the wheel and listen to the radio with his eyes closed just as his vehicle is merging with freeway traffic. Not good.

Fellow maximalist David Eggers little better in the sorting and prioritizing. Out the books go . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , a memoir of his assuming the parenting role for his younger brother Toph after the back-to-back deaths of their parents, is a bit of masterpiece of the hurried voice; a stammering and rushing narrative of someone having to shed the remains of teenage slackertude and learn adult behavior in a hurry, Eggers' style was appropriate to the subject. Given circumstances that made his reality seem to collapse upon itself, Eggers could do nothing else except move forward, as if running up the hall from a burning house, instinctually moving toward the daylight coming from a door at the end. AHWOSG , breathless, impatient, agitated and at times staggering, as it were, in it's balancing act of grace and wit and awkward locutions and shotgunned transitions, remains a real document of a writer having to leave his cozy assumptions of living the bohemian life and take on the weight as family head.
The desperation was real, and was interesting for the way the author didn't assume the disguise of narrative know-it-all. Beguiling as that was, one would have thought he would have changed his style, suitable to idea and subject, but he has not. It's about the hurry, the haste, the speed of writing coming as quickly as the speed of perception. It is the speed of the Internet generation, and the result is broad banded mediocrity. Every book he's done up until now has been a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize of his generation actually talk, rapidly, long streams of sentences, filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen.