Review: How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers

How We Are Hungry

Author: Dave Eggers

Published by: Penguin (in Australia), McSweeney’s Books (USA)

6 out of 10 stars

Dave Eggers’ books rightly attract attention. At his best (What is the What, recommended by Obama to his White House aides as essential reading), and even at its self-conscious worst (moments in his breakthrough work, AHWOSG), he’s compelling. How We Are Hungry, a collection of 15 short stories first published in 2004, is as compulsive and patchy as all the Eggers books I’ve read.

The worst stories are The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water and Quiet, both about old friends in foreign locales pondering their sexual compatibility. Though the relationships are consummated, these tales are unsatisfactory, because we don’t know why their characters are so desolate.

The six blank pages entitled There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself also irritated me. I get it: Eggers is providing room for readers’ thoughts, either about the story itself, or about the creative process. Whimsical though this prank is, Lawrence Sterne got there first, some 250 years ago.

Eggers’ other attempts at ‘showing the workings’, such as sketches of a story of a man planning his death (Notes for a Story of a Man Who Will Not Die Alone) are more successful, mainly because they last long enough for a narrative to emerge. In fact, the best stories in this collection are those which have a clear trajectory, such as Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly, about an unfulfilled American woman’s ascent of Kilimanjaro (here’s a teaser). The theme – an arduous journey leading to self-realisation – is cliched, but it at least provides a stable base for character development and Eggers’ trademark observations of injustice (in this case, the tour company’s exploitation of the Tanzanian porters).

Animals appear often, providing unexpected highlights, like Eggers’ oddly exhilarating  inhabitation of a joyous, ‘fast fast’ dog in the final story of the collection, After I Was Thrown in the Water. Despite not really understanding The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water, I was also intrigued by this passage, where the story’s main character, Pilar, sees unescorted horses outside her Costa Rican accommodation:

She was enchanted by them… but at the same time she wanted them gone. The size of their eyes implied a wide but focused intelligence, and she imagined that they would take the first opportunity to break into their room and kill them both.

Why these particular horses should be homicidal is unknown. Perhaps Pilar’s observation is a symbol of her existential fear, which is shared by many characters in this book. But while Pilar’s fantasy seems unmotivated, for this horse-scarred reader, at least, it was deeply resonant, like good observational humour. Not all readers would agree.

Perhaps Eggers’ metier is the novel, where themes are more easily broadened, characters have a chance to engage their creator, and maladroit in-jokes are less distracting. When released from the compulsion to delight, surprise, and inspire that the short story inflicts on its practitioners, Eggers can delight, surprise and inspire.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: