Stop laughing, he says. It's not funny.
Capturing the zeitgeist is something of an obsession for Dave Eggers. His work includes a recession-era treatise on the everyman’s dwindling power in American life, the near-biography of a Hurricane Katrina survivor (labelled nonfiction), the near-biography of a Sudanese child soldier (labelled fiction), and a film that wistfully captured the horrors of fracking. If you’ve read it about it in The New York Times Sunday Review, chances are Dave Eggers has considered it as source material.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank By Nathan Englander (Alfred A. Knopf, 207 pp., $24.95) The great mystery about the fiction of Nathan Englander is the rapturous response that it has elicited. The enigma deepens with the accolades for this new volume of stories, which, for reasons I will try to explain, is a great falling-off from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, his debut collection, which appeared in 1999.
Since 2001, fiction based on September 11 has become almost de rigueur among major novelists writing in English. In the aftermath of the attacks on the Word Trade Center, many of the most famous authors of our time have weighed in on the attacks, depicting the ways large and small in which they altered people’s lives. Some hypothesized possible motivations behind the terrorists’ actions: John Updike in Terrorist (2006) and Martin Amis in the short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” (2006).
Perhaps it’s just a sign of encroaching curmudgeonliness, but I find that as my own age climbs inexorably through the thirties, the less interested I am in the work of writers who are younger than I am. Looking over the much-ballyhooed New Yorker list of “20 under 40,” which came out last week, I felt mostly impatience.
Near the end of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, as young protagonist Max is abandoning the fantastical creatures who have crowned him their king, the Wild Things plead, “Oh please don’t go--we’ll eat you up--we love you so.” The line neatly captures one of the central insights of Sendak’s slim masterwork: the close proximity in the preadolescent mind between affection and aggression, between the loving and the eating. Spike Jonze’s film adaptation, which he co-wrote with Dave Eggers, expands Sendak’s tale considerably, but rather than lose track of this insight, the movie
The Haunting of L. By Howard Norman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pp., $24) Howard Norman’s novels are hard to like. Starting in 1987 with The Northern Lights, each novel has featured a taciturn, antisocial male protagonist, as disconnected from his own inner life as he is from the people around him. Norman’s landscapes mirror the emptiness of the characters who inhabit them: this American writer is unique in setting his books in the bleakest regions of Canada, from the expanses of northern Manitoba to turn-of-the century Newfoundland. And his prose is as inhospitable as the terrain.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (Random House, 462 pp., $25.95) A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the "big, ambitious novel." Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.