“How many times in life can we make decisions that are important but will not hurt anyone? Are we obligated- maybe we are- to say yes to any choice when no one will be hurt? We use the word hurt when talking about things like this because when these things go wrong it can feel as if you were hit in the sternum by a huge animal that’s run for miles just to strike you.”Dave Eggers, How We Are Hungry
I used to be a regular tenant at the bookstore in my hometown. I would wander in, smile my usual smile at whoever was behind the desk and make my way to the fiction section — in the back, next to the bathrooms, behind Sci-Fi & Fantasy. I would sit on the floor and read all the spines without a single preconceived notion about any of them, and after skimming through about a dozen, one would come home with me.
That’s how I first discovered Dave Eggers, who, despite his wildly dizzying reputation, still holds a place as one of my favorite authors. I picked up a copy of “How We Are Hungry,” devoured it in one night, and quickly went back for more.
This book, unlike the others I’ve recommended so far, is a collection of short stories, each of which spin narratives of what it means to be well, hungry: hungry for life, for intimacy, for something out of reach and undefinable — for a purpose, maybe.
It’s a study of the human condition in 14 parts, starting with “Another”, which follows a middle-aged divorcee on a venture into Egypt, “against the advice of my government, with mild diarrhea and alone.” There, he and his guide ride through the desert on horseback, and he learns what it means to work in tandem with an unbridled beast, and what it means to hunt, relentlessly, for another adventure.
In “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,”one of my favorites of the collection, we’re introduced to Pilar, a dermatologist flying to Costa Rica to see Hand — a cameo from Eggers’ novel “You Shall Know Our Velocity” — her friend, whom she’s certain she’ll be sleeping with. And, spoiler: Nothing much happens there, and I’m of the firm belief that it’s to leave you insatiable for more, dragging you unwillingly into the royal we of “How We Are Hungry.”
In one of my literature classes, we discussed the formula of a story: the excitement, the climax, the drama; we discussed how there can be no true entertainment without overwhelming and gripping plot. The idea of “stories where nothing happens” came up a number of times, and I was probably the only person defending them, and I understand why: They’re prone to being incredibly boring.
They’re white bread, square and tasteless. However, despite the delightful back-and-forth I’ve read and taken part in when it comes to Eggers in particular. The eccentric, plucky, stream-of-consciousness style he utilizes in his narratives is, in my opinion, what makes his “stories where nothing happens” so enthralling, regardless of direction.
That all being said, this book and its stories aren’t perfect. There are times when I rolled my eyes, or groaned, or slammed it shut and tossed it aside, only to pick it back up ten minutes later, ready to go again. That’s not to say I was taken hostage by the narrative in any capacity, or to make you wonder why I’m writing about it, but to express that you’ll feel a lot while reading this, and not all of it will be thrilled or enticed or inspired.
At its worst, “How We Are Hungry” feels like it’s trying to escape the box it put itself in, and no amount of flair or sweeping prose will produce a key. At its best, however, it’s brilliantly bright and undeniably deep, touching places inside of you that remind you what it is to be human.