My dad has this really uneven track record when it comes to presents. You always know he's going to get at least one book, and he writes just achingly beautiful inscriptions in even the ill-considered stuff, the stuff that makes you think, "Dad, seriously, do you have any idea with whom you're dealing?" Then you can't even sell the book surreptitiously, evil ungrateful daughter-like, because it says this true thing even when it doesn't. So this is his most recent birthday gift to my husband, which I stole and read today while my youngest child fevered and steamed with a nasty case of influenza.
I didn't expect much, because a novel based on Where the Wild Things Are
is maybe the least necessary literary adaption in the last decade. (Insert argument here about whether the Jane Austen + Monsters books are more reviled.) I kind of hate the idea of universality in fiction, because it's usually used as this dumbish tautology - "Shakepeare's great because he's universal,
" people screech, when what they mean is he has ripping plots and bloodshed and comedy and pathos and language that will entirely stop your blood in your veins with its power. I don't know what your life is, but mine is mostly quiet and humdrum and filled with inanity and the boredom and worry of watching over a not-quite-3-year-girl who is mercifully not as sick as she could be. Universal is an odd way to describe how unlike my life fiction is. But I'm being a little faux-naive here, because I get what people are trying to say: I am the protagonist of my own life, and the drama and power of the things that go on between my ears are more real than the laundry, work day and monotony. Fair enough.
Sendak's 21-line masterpiece does gesture towards universality, because there are so few specifics. The mother is largely theoretical, seen only in the metonymy of the soup, the unrecorded lines before Max's outbursts. There's no bothersome explanations of how he sails away and how he lives; things just happen with the logic of the dream state. Although not rigidly constructed, the lines sometimes coalesce into rhyme and repetition, like a greater poetry hiding under the words. It's a great book, rightly called a masterpiece, even if I myself am more moved and troubled by Sendak's lesser known Outside Over There
So, okay, along comes a movie/book adaption, which has all the potential to become the same kind of massive betrayal and clusterfuck that are the live-action versions of Cat in the Hat
or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
. I'm going to take a break now so I don't go off on some unnecessary rampage about these movies.
After typing out and deleting a bunch of vitriol, I'm back. (I'm not even kidding, which is the sad part.) Creating back-story and motivations for characters such as Max or the Grinch is a tricky transmutation, one that usually fails because the translations from the universal gesture to specific character takes the power of the raging psyche and mires it into a bunch of worldly tedium. Oh, so Max has a divorced mother, she has a new boyfriend, and he's fighting with his teenaged sister? Great. Good one.
This is the thing: this is the part of the book that totally worked for me, but unfortunately this part of the book is only the first third or so. I consider myself something of a Dave Eggers agnostic. I've only attempted A Heartbreaking Work
, and I never finished it, but all kinds of folks I really dig have read his other stuff, and say it's good. And I don't know if this is a weird thing to say about a writer, but I really loved his sentences. He vacillates cleanly between the rage and wonder and boredom of childhood, sometimes soaring into almost overblown metaphors, at other times stating things baldly in the "and then and then and then" style of stories told by children. For some reason, this really affected me, a moment right after Max has flipped out and bit his mother:
"Max has never bit her before. He was scared. His mom was scared. They saw each other anew."
This is not long after this sentence, where Max accidentally breaks his own artwork:
"It broke and like quail the pieces darted to every corner of the foyer."
It seems like there would be a less awkward way to say this, but the awkwardness is perfect, essential. Childhood is uncomfortable, awkward, and the Max in this book is both sociopathic and crushingly empathetic in a way I felt was real.
However, once Max sails to the island where the wild things live, I was much less engaged. I get the impression that Eggers is deliberately refraining from developing character for the monsters, and good on him for that, but it made them weirdly flat and interchangeable. I haven't seen the film, but I imagine this sort of thing functions best without words, a spectacle of experience. Even in the Sendak book, several pages go by with no text at all; a wild rumpus needs no narration. I also feel like Eggers was trying to confound a Freudian/psychological reading of the monsters, even while there were things that seemed too allegorical. The narrative then ends up in this weird place that is neither psychomyth nor fairy tale, but struggling oddly out of everyday into fantasy, and failing at both.
I don't know. I don't usually review things the same day I read them, and I suspect I might sneak back here later and dock a star once I've had time to digest. But I'm so pleased I didn't hate this, pleased Eggers seemed to bring Max down to earth in a way that doesn't smear him with anything but the dirt and little-boyness that he already embodied. Thanks, Dad. Let's all cross our fingers for Christmas.