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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The New Yorker name checks Dave Eggers, with mixed results

I know he's hugely popular but I haven't read much in the works of Dave Eggers - perhaps because he's hugely popular? - but have from afar admired his dedication and his principles, his works about the impoverished and oppressed in Africa and especially his tremendous work to advance literacy and writing skills among the youth, particularly in SF. That said, his story in current New Yorker, The Alaska of Giants and Gods (I keep wanting to read it as ... and Dogs), is probably not a great place to start: his style, as I've seen from the other shorter pieces of his I've come across, is breezy and witty, he has a nice eye for detail (this story set in Seward, Alaska, and captures what I imagine to be an accurate sense of place, desolate, cold, scenic in a brutal way) and a keen ear for voice - the main character, Josie, is sharply colloquial and true. But beyond this topical details, is there anything in the story as a whole that rings true? The premise is the J is a 38-year-old divorced mom of two young children, a dentist who gave up her practice after losing a serious malpractice lawsuit, and decides almost on a whim to sell everything, take the two kids to Alaska, rent an ancient RV, and set off for who knows what or where, starting with the bleak coastal fishing port of Seward. Who does this? Answer: only people in movies, or, occasionally, in stories. Unless the person is seriously mentally troubled or even abusive, and J. is none of these, just quirky, supposedly. OK, let's give the story its premise, but then what?: so J sits down near a wharf and an older man, Charlie, comes on to her and her kids and invites them aboard the docked cruise ship on which he's a passenger to enjoy a magic show. Properly, J wonders about whether she's getting into trouble but decides the guy is harmless. They go to the show, which is bad even by cruise-ship standards, but J., feeling sorry for the pathetic entertainers, begins cheering and hooting loudly, embarrassing those around her (do they think she's mocking and derisive?). The final entertainer has memorized all of the nation's Zip codes and has audience members call out a code and he tells them the location. End of story. Perhaps that's meant to be some kind of riff on the emptiness of American life and landscape? Or a nod to the 39 Steps - which would be OK if there were something going on here: what's Charlie up to? Are J and her children in any danger? What's next for them? I understand that perhaps this is lifted from a longer piece, that this is one episode on their odyssey, but if so it's a poor selection as the ending brings about no clarity, resolution, or even mystery. If this is part of a novel, I wouldn't write it off based on this excerpt, but when the NYer name-checks major authors they owe us more than this.

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