How We Are Hungry

The Fact:

How We Are Hungry is a short story collection by Dave Eggers, released in 2004. It was published, of course, by McSweeney's, and contains the following stories:
  • "Another"
  • "What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from His Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust" (From The Guardian)
  • "The Only Meaning of the Oil-wet Water" (From Zoetrope All-Story)
  • "On Wanting to Have Three Walls up Before She Gets Home" (From The Guardian)
  • "Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance" (From The New Yorker, where it was entitled "Measuring the Jump".)
  • "She Waits, Seething, Blooming" (From The Guardian)
  • "Quiet"
  • "Your Mother and I" (From h2s04)
  • "Naveed" (From The Guardian)
  • "Notes for a Story of a Man Who Will Not Die Alone"
  • "About the Man Who Began Flying After Meeting Her" (From The Guardian)
  • "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" (From McSweeney's #10)
  • "There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself"
  • "When They Learned to Yelp"
  • "After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned" (From Speaking With the Angel.)
Note: "There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself" does not appear in the paperback version. Fear not; you're not missing much. It's five blank pages.

The Opinion:

Now you know what the book is and who wrote it. But you came for more than that, didn't you? You could quite easily have looked up that information elsewhere, but you didn't, and because you didn't I believe you are the kind of person who voraciously thirsts for more. And so, I provide:

I believe that my encounter with How We Are Hungry was, to an extent, a matter of fate. I didn’t know much about Eggers besides the fact that hipper people than I adored him. Sexier, well-connected people. I imagined these people as the kind of individuals who threw extravagant theme parties and actually somehow enjoyed the taste of espresso instead of faking it for the sake of impressing girls in trendy coffee shops. They probably lived in California or Seattle. I also knew that one of the earlier editions of You Shall Know Our Velocity featured no conventional cover. Rather, the story started on the front page, and the book contained no title page, publisher information, or any such thing. Undoubtedly, that’s a clever move, and Eggers is a clever man. The question then became: is Eggers a gimmicky writer? If so, are the gimmicks bullshit? If a writer users a gimmick that is bullshit, can that in and of itself serve a higher literary purpose?

Having resolved to read some Eggers, I purchased How We Are Hungry, not because it was the only one I’d read a story from, but simply because it was the only one of his books that Borders had in stock at the time.

So, do you see how it was kind of a whim to read Eggers, and how How We Are Hungry was necessitated by Borders? I am not a person who believes in coincidences. I believe in a good many other things: I believe that Dan Marino should have won a Super Bowl ring, for instance. I believe that Neil Young will release at least five more albums before he dies1. I believe in God. I don’t believe in coincidences, though.

So, I read the collection. I admired it. Eggers does what many similar writers can’t do, which is to employ the experimental and the weird but to root it in a basis of solid characterization and a real sense of emotional gravity. These are characters whose basic humanity is unquestionable, and the surrounding landscape of outlandish occurrences only enhances this.

I’ll try to explain what I mean. In several stories, Eggers has a knack for giving a voice to things that, logically, should not speak – horses, sheep, dogs, the ocean, God, and even the moon’s reflection. This ventriloquism is surprisingly effective, and I chalk it up to the simple reason that these voices, by virtue of their inhumanity, can make observations on humanity that feel honest and unselfconscious. There’s no reason to believe what a dog says, but we do. We sense on some primeval level that dogs can be trusted.

From a craft standpoint, this is also a lovely sleight-of-hand on Eggers’ part. By employing this rather metaphysical technique, he introduces an alternate (and often profound) voice into the story without obligating himself to produce it through an additional character. The horses in “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water” speak not to each other, but to their shadows on a dirt road, reflecting both the oblique manner in which Pilar and Hand try to communicate with one another and their wild nature begging to be released. Pilar and Hand leave the beach, and the horses stay behind. Eggers has the luxury of using them to communicate a point, then leaving them behind. What’s interesting to note, however, is that he doesn’t completely abandon the thought of them – rather, vast, wild voices make appearances throughout the story, and he occasionally gives them lines, too:
GOD: I own you like I own the caves.
THE OCEAN: Not a chance. No comparison.
GOD: I made you. I could tame you.
THE OCEAN: At one time, maybe. But not now.
GOD: I will come to you, freeze you, break you.
THE OCEAN: I will spread myself like wings. I am a billion tiny feathers. You have no idea what’s happened to me.
Perhaps the most striking of these instances occurs in “Quiet,” in which the narrator claims to have had a conversation with “the nickly shimmer of the moon on a black lake” after the events of the story took place, though there is evidence in the text that the conversation is completely fabricated by the narrator. I think that it’s important to have read the passage in order for my comments to make sense:
   “You are a lucky one, Tom, to have Erin and others like Erin.” The voice of the nickly reflection of the moon was not as deep as you might expect. It was a singer’s voice, though, a tenor, one that loved itself without reservation.
   “Thank you,” I said. “I feel blessed.”
   “I often think of coming down to live among you, to make a big mess of it all,” he said. “It always looks so messy, and I think I might like that.”
   “It is messy, I guess.”
   “It looks awfully messy. It looks almost impossible to survive, to tell you the truth. The pain of it all.”
   “It’s not all that painful,” I said.
   “But Tom,” it said, “the swinging of your pendulums! Everyone’s pendulums swinging, to and fro, and always you’re getting hit by someone else’s swinging pendulum. You’re minding your business, but someone else’s pendulum is swinging around you, and pow! you get it in the head.”
   “That happens, yes.”
   “I saw you and Erin by the shed.”
   “I was there.”
   “That makes sense. I saw you, too.”
   “I watch you often, Tom. I have time on my hands. Time is different to me than it is to you.”
    I was still thinking about what the nickly shimmer had seen. He, however, was warming to the sound of his thoughts.
   “I feel time like you dream. Your dreams are jumbled. You can’t remember the order of your dreams, and when you recall them, the memories bend. Faces change. It’s all in puddles and ripples. That’s what time is for me.”
The important thing to note is that this exchange opens the story, though we’re to understand that it occurred after the events of the story. Eggers has slipped us clues on how to read the piece: there will be complex issues of time, of people clashing, of “faces changing,” and some climactic scene behind a shed. There is something oddly beautiful about this opening scene, and it comes as a shock when we finally do understand what the reflection saw behind the shed: that Tom essentially raped Erin. In a moment of passion unreturned, he takes her behind the shed, and though she protests she doesn’t quite struggle. It’s over in a few sentences, and both of them realize precisely how "fucked up" (the characters' phrase) the situation actually is, with neither seeming to connect the word “rape” to the situation and yet both of them feeling profoundly disturbed.

He makes another smart move in the opening of “Quiet.” Erin, the love interest of Tom (and several others) has one arm. This unleashes a whole mess of possible metaphorical implications, but what’s more interesting than that is that he leaves this rather large detail out of the story until the fifth page, which is enough time for the reader to see her as Tom does – whole. By the time we learn that Erin has one arm, we already know her as a character, so the lack of an arm doesn’t dominate the reader’s understanding of the character.

I have focused on the more quirky aspects of How We Are Hungry because they are in some ways the most interesting for me to discuss in a write-up, but I should point out that they are not the most engaging elements of the stories. Rather, Eggers writes about situations which are completely within the realm of possibility and owns the characters and their tensions to a degree that truly sells the conflict. In “Quiet,” Erin is adored by not only Tom, but also by their two other coworkers, all of whom she trades some form of affection with. Tom is the most special, in a sense, and it’s because of this that she never sleeps with him, while she does with the other two. In fact, Eggers chooses to make it a threesome, and finding this out is devastating for Tom, as it would be for anyone else. “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water” basically chronicles the long-coming hook-up of two old friends on vacation, both of whom know they’ll sleep together before they even step onto the plane. The complication, then, is not the sex, but the implications of the sex, the baggage they carry with them as they move towards it – both Pilar and Hand have certain presuppositions about why and when they’ll eventually copulate (a word I have never used in writing until now), and both of them turn out to be mistaken.

Perhaps I sound fanatical. It's only one stranger's opinion, but to sum it all up: why not give it a read?

1I also believe that at least three of these albums will be excellent.

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