A Close Read

What makes bad writing bad

Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir full of practiced idiosyncrasy and contrived candor, revealed nothing so much as the author's X-rated affection for the sound of his own voice. His latest effort, the story collection How We Are Hungry (McSweeney's), is a far more temperate, generally melancholic affair. But in it a certain voice keeps popping up oddly: that of the irrepressibly manic memoirist.

This is detectable in his often unbefitting use of faux-Wodehousian analogy: "The woman at the mercado had dirty blond hair, like margarine full of crumbs." Another character uses a particular word "liberally and randomly, like some use curry." Still another has "a short-shorn blond beard that wraps his face as a bandage would a man, decades ago, suffering from a toothache." Striving for a sort of naturalism, Eggers draws attention to inessential details, but seems instantly fearful that they will be uninteresting without a touch of cartoonish coloring. (Less charitably, one might wonder if they're merely a pretext for such coloring.) Or perhaps he fears that certain observations simply risk being clichés, and so above all narrative considerations he makes strenuously sure to express himself with the utmost originality.

The final, brief paragraph of the story "Quiet" reveals how disruptive his war on cliché can be. After maintaining a claustrophobic romantic tension throughout—partly by way of some linguistic restraint—Eggers serves up this couplet: "The moon was striped by the blinds but I could see its nickly shimmer on the bay. It looked like aluminum foil, when crumpled and then smoothed with a thumb or the back of a knife." That first sentence, unconcerned with novelty, does no narrative harm, whereas the elaboration that follows reads like part of a cooking-show transcript, and only shatters the mood.

Just as Eggers's tone in this collection can at times be too cute for its own good, so too can it be jarringly, deliberately deranged—another carry-over from AHWOSG. Thus, apropos of virtually nothing, we get these expressions of fleeting impulse, which are frank and unrevealing in equal measure: "Pilar wanted to cut stomachs open with glass." "She wanted to rub herself in bananas. She wanted to open umbrellas into the faces of cats, make them scurry and scream." "I wanted to eat her vomit." "I wanted to be cut to pieces and eaten."

In AHWOSG, Eggers's voice was a narrative end unto itself, and as such could wander freely, in multiple directions at once. Taking full advantage, he produced an entire cliché-defying book—one that despite a built-in pathos had an overwhelmingly prankish tone. Fiction like what he's now writing (typically episodic and naturalistic) is built on a narrative logic that can easily be undone by stylistic departures. If the rigor of such fiction proves to be too much, Eggers might do well to seek another, freer outlet. As exasperating as it can be, his is a voice best used liberally, not randomly.