Tag Archives: Ben Fong-Torres

Dave Eggers Goes Retro

It’s derivative…

“…we, the loudmouths who so cloyingly espouse the unshackling of one’s ideas about work and life…”

“If you don’t want anyone to know about your existence, you might as well kill yourself…   You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of dignity.”A heartbreaking work

There’s been an ongoing dispute over Dave Eggers.   His initial novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out in 2000 (hardbound) and 2001 (trade paperback).   Some viewed him as a genius – “like a young Bob Dylan” in the words of the Washington Post – while others just found his writing style to be clever.   After reading this book, I tend to concur with the latter group.   Eggers is clearly funny and he has an obvious knack for writing humor but content-wise there’s not much here.   Heartbreaking is a bit like Seinfeld, which was a TV show about nothing.

Here Eggers fictionalizes his own life, when both of his parents die while he’s in his early twenties and he moves from Lake Forest, Illinois to Berkeley.   Oh, and he also takes care of his nine-year-old brother while his sister studies law at Bolt Hall.   That’s about it for the plot except for Eggers’s work in starting a magazine and auditioning for The Real World, MTV’s so-called reality show.   (Eggers, of course, is not selected to live in the fun house in San Francisco.)

Eggers seems to be at his best when telling shaggy dog stories.   For example, he tells a story of when he and a date were jumped on a San Francisco beach by a group of Hispanics.   He blames them for stealing his late father’s wallet but the reader figures out halfway through the lark that Eggers left the wallet at home in Berkeley.   Not so clever or funny.

Eggers looks back more than once at the 70’s.   But this book is actually a throw back to the 60’s, and this is the biggest flaw with Eggers’s not-so-unique style.   While the style is entertaining, it’s a blatant return to the Gonzo rock journalism practiced back then by Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres (who appears as himself in the novel The Year of Fog) and others too obvious to mention.  

Reading this “work of fiction” in which all the events are said to “have actually happened,” is like hearing a newly formed rock band that sounds like the Beatles and Badfinger.   One would be tempted to say, “Good work but we’ve already been there, done that.”   Next.

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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Mystery to Me

No One You KnowWhen Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he called it a non-fiction novel.   With No One You Know, Michelle Richmond has written what might be called the fictional true crime story.   Ellie Enderlin lives in San Francisco where she works as a coffee buyer, traveling to many countries to find the very best beans.   Her sister Lila, a math genius, was murdered 20 years earlier while studying at Stanford.   Things have come together in such a way for Ellie that she thinks its time to find out who killed Lila, and why.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this story and Michelle Richmond’s writing style is smooth and easy to follow.   Anyone who has lived in or loves San Francisco will connect with certain places and scenes in the book (the main character went to college at U.S.F.).   Richmond also has a sly sense of humor…   In one scene Ellie steps into a coffee house that features books having a certain theme.   This time the theme is fog, and one of the books featured is Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco.   Then there’s, “a novel that I’d read recently, a sort of literary mystery about a kidnapping set in San Francisco.   The book had been interesting, if somewhat drawn out.”   In this way Richmond both references and makes fun of her earlier book, The Year of Fog.   Clever!

But there was a problem and it went to believability.   Early on, Richmond puts Ellie together with a former Stanford student who was thought to be a prime suspect in her sister’s death; what today would be called “a person of interest.”   But instead of permitting them to meet in the Bay Area, she transports both to the village of Diriomo, Nicaragua.   This seemed quite unnecessary – I still don’t see the rationale for it – and it made me wonder if I would find the remainder of the story to be credible.   Fortunately, Richmond’s telling makes a full recovery.   But…

The story also seemed about 31 pages too long.   The natural ending – the resolution of the basic story – comes at page 275, but it continues on until page 306.   (In Richmond’s own words, somewhat drawn out.)

Despite a couple of issues mentioned here, I look forward to reading Richmond’s next novel.   I may also read The Year of Fog, a book I decided earlier to by-pass due to its subject matter.   Richmond’s strengths lie in addressing the topics of morality, trust, human relationships, love and loss.   In No One You Know, she makes a superb case for the need to learn (and accept) the truth about those we love – because the truth defines them in human scale, in human terms.   And as Jackson Browne would remind us, sometimes we didn’t know what it was that we loved about another person.   The love was enough.

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