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 buoyed 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.


  1. Hey Ted,

    Dawn and I had an interesting exchange about Eggers a while back. I thought Heartbreaking Work nearly lived up to the name, although, yeah, annoying. Dawn found a great passage, though, of Eggers screaming at the reader, as if the novel had a forth wall that could be breached is, I think, how she put it.

    Franzen I have not read. For fiction lately I whipped through some Raymond Carver short stories, and have moved to Grace Paley. Both hold up better.

    But I wonder about McSweeney's, which you don't mention, and which leaves me on the fence. I kind of wonder if the standards of fiction, even short fiction, aren't the wrong ones. It's internet life seems to constitute a new genre. I'm as likely to laugh out loud there as I am elsewhere, yet the experience is fleeting, and I don't check in regularly. I think the only hard-copy version that ever tempted me was the comics issue.

    Several conversations I've had lately make me think fiction is in a period of mediocrity. Like -- all I've been tempted to read lately has been the NYRB reprint series (but definitely check out Half of a Yellow Sun. I don't feel the same way about poetry. The former flourished in the age of magazines, the later seems to me to be doing well by the net. Of course, for ad nauseum disagreement with my sense that poetry is booming, see PFray.

  2. I bet Eggers’ went to a lot of spoken word events as a young man. I bet he scored a lot. Perhaps his writing style still reflects those early successes, and while it worked for him in A Heartbreaking Work, it's not a style that ages well.

    I'll always have a little crush on him, though.

  3. Uh, I think he's married to his college sweetheart (Vindala Vida?). But I agree that there's a poetry-slam sensibility to the prose.

    What is the What has been well received -- I feel like I should read it before being too harsh on the guy, but he's definitely associated himself with a style that's equal parts brilliant and irritating. I'm trying to think of a comparison in another sphere -- maybe Wes Anderson movies. For every moment that you go "wow!" there's another couple when you just feel kind of embarrassed.

  4. I saw him at Bumbershoot in Seattle a few years ago. His style works well on stage - what is it - studied guilelessness? Carefully arranged candor? He's very likeable and disarming, anyway (is that an observation or a criticism?)

    McSweeney's is a little too clever, too self-satisfied. Personality sans person. I feel like it wants to play the same trick on me over and over. I've lost interest.

  5. McSweeney's just about killed irony as effective literary effect with their hollow-tone sarcasm; whoever and whatever I happened to be reading just seemed to keep stalling with gee-whizzing breeziness and parodies of different writerly styles , and all you wanted to do was tell these punks to get on with it and get to their point. I admire Eggers' determination to publish and control the distribution of himself and the writers he cares about, but what we get are the extended gushings of the staff of the college editorial board. By now some of these writers have to be in their late thirties and early forties, and one would think that they'd grown up a little or did something different after they bored even themselves with vowl-popping style. But no dice, and this is a tacky fact they share with Tom Wolfe, who has not seen fit to alter his style since his article writing for New York magazine. Nothing worse than aging hipsters trying to sound young rather than grown up, matured. Wolfe's wit and snap is now just an old rubber band stretched too long, and his is something of crank. Hey you kids, get off my lawn. Eggers and his crew will fare better, I suspect, but I wonder if it's not too late. There is an appalling shallowness coming off him when you read his words, and it makes you think that all that energy is geared to accomplish little else than to produce line length.

  6. Anonymous7:35 PM PDT

    I've loved Carver since I was first introduced to him in English 111 by an enthusiastic grad student who also turned me on to Breece D'J Pancake (also amazing) and Flannery O'Connor (no comment needed).

    But I still retain a soft spot for most of David Foster Wallace's work and, in particular, think _Infinite Jest_ is a master work. There are a lot of words to love, though.

    I don't have a clue why I believe Carver and Wallace to both be significant representatives of their particular styles and approach, why I don't see Wallace as being as hollow as you think. I remember all the critics complaining about the emptiness of Carver's "dirty realism" (what a craptacular shorthand that was) too...

    But I have to admit that your writing is at its best when you're demonstrating your dislike of authors and artists... even when I disagree. You seem to be much more fired up with that you hate than that you promote.

  7. Hi Chris

    Thanks for your comments.

    I still have huge respect for Carver's all these years after college; he is one of very few writers I've read in the post-Hemingway generation who's minuscule language, always sharp, always exact, managed to achieve a profound effect despite the paucity of language. He equals Hemingway in large part (assuming, of course,that the stories that editor/writer Gordon Lish didn't in fact rewrite Carver's work to his own idea of style), and what I admire is that his effect was different that Hemingway's. There's a coarser grit that comes through Carver's prose, through all those closed conjunctions and truncated metaphors. The sentimentality, that of the lonely and brave man abiding by a personal code in a world where World Wars have made morality suspect; Hemingway still held out for the human capacity to find some goodness despite the convenient cynicism that would have made one's social graces easier to move around in. Carver's is that lonely cynicism filtered through Beckett; everything is broken, used up, deracinated comprimised and prostituted so far as a protagonist's personal character and ethical strain is concerned. Carver's is the world of the already dead, blunted perception and bad faith all around. A little of him does go a long way, though I will say I think he's a better writer and poet than Bukowski. John Fante is better than Bukowski.

    I actually don't think Wallace is hollow, only that Infinite Jest was over rated and which operates as an experiment where one is attempting something analogous Keith Jarrett's prolix and lugubrious piano improvisations. The talent behind the book is obvious and sometimes impressive, but is weighed down by lack of focus--others claim that is well the point of IJ, that the narrative is decentered to the degree that it reflects a Bergsonian idea of perceived experience more as spread , like drops hitting hard ground , with it's essence cast over great , diffused distance, that rather than the linear line where the main river of plot dominates, with diversions and subplots being only minor points to bolster the main thesis and world view. I think it possible Wallace may have found himself in some competition with Thomas Pynchon. Anyway, the novel suffers for it. I have greatly enjoyed Wallace's other books , though, especially "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again","Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and "Oblivion". Wallace , contra Carver, seems set to make the sentence do things and hold clauses not normally associated with contemporary prose style, and given his knack of noticing everything, seemingly, in what he's writing about and including it in his flow, I would say that the shorter forms--short story, journalism, the essay, travel writing--are best suited to containing his very real brilliance.

    I take your point about verbal skills more acute when one is actively disliking something they've read, seen or heard. Why something gives you pleasure is a subjective matter, with reasons undisclosed even to the reviewer, and I think one has to invent a rhetoric in order to make the approval one feels comprehensible to a reader. There is something to be said about reviewers and their positive critiques; they don't seem as surefooted as a well-turned negative notice. It may have something to do with the old adage that beauty might be in the eye of the beholder,but ugliness is universally recognized. I'm not nearly that reductionist, but among certain reader communities, a strong element of what's bad, awful, lame, pretentious and inept is shared, and it's easier, I think, to draw a fresh invective from the common stock. Negative reviews, let me not forget to mention, are more fun to write, and it's a struggle to resist writing them en masse. There is nothing more boring than a bored cynic, no>

  8. I'd like to take this opportunity to urge anyone interested in a maximalist point of view -- inflated to behemoth proportions -- to dip into the weird but magiserial works of Edward Dahlberg. Because I Was Flesh is his most poignant work: The Sorrows of Priapus and the Carnal Myth are his most bizarre and obsessive. Dahlberg's maximalism - remember, he was a onetime mentor to Charles Olson -- is less in his volume of language than in its density, gravity and sheer conceptual heft. His mind was off the Periodic Chart, way beyond the heavy metals....

  9. Can These Bones Live? It's still an open question.

  10. Did Dahlberg write on a Periodic Table?


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