By Michael Dirda
Friday, October 16, 2009
THE WILD THINGS
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney's. 288 pp. $19.95
Sigh. Here's yet another example of a contemporary writer paying homage to, and screwing around with, an earlier masterpiece. Poor Jane Austen, in particular, has suffered innumerable such depredations, the latest being the grotesque "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." In "The Wild Things," Dave Eggers -- who, in a sense, is self-publishing this book, because he founded McSweeney's -- has taken Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" and turned a timeless picture-book classic into a contemporary problem novel for children 8 to 12. Of course, its marketers hope that grown-ups -- racked with nostalgia or fans of Eggers's popular earlier work -- will read "The Wild Things" as a kind of enriched version of their long-ago bedtime favorite.
Yet where Sendak created a poetic blend of words and pictures to depict typical childhood impulses, fears and desires, Eggers has crimped these universals, reducing them to the upswellings of confusion and rage felt by an 8- or 9-year-old after his parents' divorce. Yes, the general outline of Sendak's story is still there: Max misbehaves in his wolf suit, sails to an island inhabited by roly-poly monsters, becomes their king and eventually returns home a wiser child. But everything has been made trendy, diminishing the original's archetypal resonance to syrupy movie cliches. This is especially so in the first third of the novel, set in our world. Once on monster island, the book grows more charming and witty.
But it never loses its cynical manipulativeness, starting with a dedication that demands the Heimlich maneuver to preventing gagging: "For Maurice Sendak, an unspeakably brave and beautiful man." Come on now. After the comma, every one of those words is California Speak worthy of "The Simpsons' " Troy McClure. Sendak did catch major flak early in his career -- the nightmarish Wild Things were too scary for little kids; some parents and librarians were indignant that Mickey, the hero of "In the Night Kitchen," was shown naked -- but for the past 30 years or more the man has been a living god. (See, for instance, Gregory Maguire's recent homage, "Making Mischief.") So let's not exaggerate here.
In truth, "The Wild Things" has less to do with Sendak's original picture book than with the young adult novels of the 1970s and '80s. Just before the fantasy tsunami hit with J.K. Rowling, YA fiction was dominated by depressing accounts of children coming to terms with every sort of social and psychological trauma then available: a gay parent, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, racism, uncertain sexual orientation, worries about body image, prejudice of every sort. Although such books are obviously useful, they nonetheless readily slide into kiddie socialist realism, contrived stories of bravery and redemption, packed with uplifting morals for the troubled and confused. Give me Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys any day.
"The Wild Things" belongs in this gloomy tradition. Young Max lives with his divorced mom, his adolescent sister (who has recently discovered boys) and his mom's three-nights-a-week lover, the dippy, hippiesh Gary. Max's dad lives in an apartment in the city, sometimes forgets to call or visit and has hooked up with the "pretty in a loud way" Pamela. Max's mother cries a lot.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood is going to hell. The old houses are being torn down and being replaced by McMansions. When a new kid moves in and proves to be a possible friend for the lonely Max, the boy's mother turns out to be insane about the omnipresence of "Molesters! Drugs! Homeless! Needles!" She actually sends her son to a quilting class.
As for the plot: Max rides his bike, builds a fort, starts a snowball fight, takes revenge on his evil sister and goes around worrying about why he's so bad. One presumes that the action takes place sometime in the recent past, since there are exercise tapes and personal computers, but no mention of text-messaging or Game Boys.
So much for the first third of the book. Matters do improve dramatically once Max reaches the island of the Wild Things. These are hairy and horned creatures, "ten or twelve feet tall, four hundred pounds each or more. Max knew his animal kingdom, but he had no name for these beasts. From behind they resembled bears, but they were larger than bears, their heads far bigger, and they were quicker than bears or anything so large." One looks like a gigantic rooster. Yet these Boschian monsters also resemble typical American adults: One is depressed, another complains about everything and still another talks like a prissy English teacher: "Carol, can I speak to you for a second?" By the way, Carol turns out to be male -- why, it's hard to say, unless it's an attempt to undercut a reader's sexist expectations. Still, however deeply sensitive these creatures may be, they are still as short-tempered and unfocused as colicky pre-schoolers, and their general fallback position when thwarted is "if you do that again, I swear I'll eat your head."
The Wild Things prove even more impulsive, ferocious and destructive than Max himself. (And some of Max's recorded behavior does suggest the need for intervention; at one point he dumps seven buckets of water over his sister's bed and belongings). But, as King Max's sojourn on monster island continues, it's clear that his adventures with his new subjects subtly mirror the real life he left behind: The free-for-all of the wild rumpus recalls a vacation weekend when his aunts, uncles and cousins crammed themselves together in a small cabin in Colorado. At a later feast, the Wild Things actually get drunk and flirtatious like his mother's friends at her out-of-control New Year's Eve party. One monster named Katherine gradually emerges as an ambiguous mother figure, going so far as to symbolically give birth to a new Max and then to murmur, possessively: "Please don't go, Max. You're a part of me." More than anything else, though, the Wild Things want the same impossibilities that Max dreams about: "To make everything better for everyone always for all time."
Throughout the book, Eggers's viewpoint remains that of Max's child-mind, yet he regularly undercuts his hero with nudge-nudge adult humor. A Wild Thing will start talking about another monster's "aura" or mention a fear of the "void." When Max insists that a war will be a swell way to pass the time, Eggers insinuates double-edged remarks, so that we know we're supposed to think about terrorism and the invasion of Iraq: Max "was wrong to ban rocks, or even animals. The key was to use any or all weapons at one's disposal, but to just make sure you won when you used them."
When Max finally sails back home, he finds -- as in Sendak's original -- that his supper is still hot: Those who visit fairyland or the folkloristic Other World always return to find that either a century has passed or no time at all. But because of his experiences with the unruly Wild Things, Max has begun to master his emotions and to sympathize more fully with his mother. He is, in short, starting to grow up. But then what other ending could there be?
All in all, Dave Eggers's "The Wild Things" is intermittently amusing but far more conventional than it should be. Eight- to 12-year-olds will like the book, but older readers -- those "children of all ages" -- won't be starting a wild rumpus over it.
Michael Dirda -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- usually appears each Thursday in Style.
Books Sunday in Outlook
-- Sugar Ray Robinson in the ring -- and out.
-- What does your dog really think of you?
-- The children of Armenia.
-- Uncovering a family's secrets in Hungary.
-- And reviewing the first five years of Homeland Security.