Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dave Eggers's Max

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 18.

Dave Eggers has been cropping up everywhere lately. Even on this blog. During this short story month, he has bobbed up as the editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, and as the editor of McSweeney’s. I mentioned David Wallace’s Infinite Jest in a comment, and guess who wrote the introduction to my edition of that novel. Now, whose story do you think was published in the current edition of The New Yorker? That’s right, Dave Eggers’s. And that’s today’s story. It’s called “Max at Sea,” and it’s available here.

This isn’t a standalone story: it’s part of Eggers’s forthcoming novel, The Wild Things. And there’s a story to that, too: Eggers wrote the screenplay for the movie Where the Wild Things Are, a film version of the famous children’s book of the same name. So Eggers was asked to write a novelization of the film (something Salman Rushdie has called an “ugly method”—which I don’t think will be the case in Eggers’s case). Eggers says he enjoys “different permutations of the same story.” And that’s how Eggers’s latest novel came to be. You can read more about it in this interview.

The story is quick and entertaining. The tale is familiar enough, but Eggers fills it in with new situations, delves deeper into the motivations, and elaborates further on the actions. “Max at Sea” keeps the pace and sense of wonder of a children’s tale, while managing to hold the attention of an adult. The way in which the child’s perspective textures the story is well done, revolving around the main character, Max. For instance, Max keeps a “WANT JOURNAL,” given to him by his father. In that journal, one of his “wants” goes like this: “I WANT to find some unicorn DNA and then grow a bunch of them and teach them to impale Claire’s friends with their horns.” (Claire is Max’s older sister, who’s not, needless to say, on very good terms with Max.) Max describes his mother’s boyfriend as “chinless” and as a “frog-eyed man.” After drifting off in a boat for some time, Max figured “he had to be at least seven million miles from where he cast off.” Give or take a few inches.

Max’s father doesn’t live with them anymore, and his absence in fact gives the story some emotional depth. We see Max constantly trying to assert control over the house, displacing her mother’s boyfriend (into “some kind of bottomless hole,” if possible). He even writes his name on the boat he finds so that “any fish or whales or passing ships would know who commanded this vessel.” At one point, he plans on showing up at his father’s apartment: “Wow, he’d be surprised! He would be astounded and impressed, and they would live together from then on.”

The child’s perspective is not unusual in fiction, of course, but it reminded me of a recent story by Wells Tower, which I discussed briefly in an update to this post. (By the way, there’s another Dave Eggers connection there: the next number of McSweeney’s will include a short story by Wells Tower, and number 30 did, too.)

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