Dave Eggers Has His Limits
Originally published in Issue 2 of Pallet magazine: http://allthingspallet.com/
The request comes a few days ahead of the interview. Dave Eggers is happy to speak to me, I’m told, but he’s overwhelmed with other projects and would prefer to restrict the interview to one topic: his painting. Dave Eggers paints? Apparently he does — and often. An interview with Dave Eggers on his painting suggests the wilful obscurantism of the cultural studies seminar, the kind of exercise where you take an artist and examine every part of their life or work except the one that made them famous (sample paper titles: “The Belts of Marcel Proust,” “Beethoven’s Rental Arrangements.”) But much of the task in any conversation, especially when it comes to setting up a literary interview, is in establishing the conditions of engagement; and to be honest, I’m mildly relieved to be liberated of the need to find an angle. If painting is what Dave Eggers wants to talk to me about, painting is what Dave Eggers and I will talk about.
A time is set for the phone call; we won’t be speaking in person, so I’ll have no recourse to what Nabokov — who hated interviews of any nature, literary or otherwise — called “the background music of bogus informality;” I won’t get to see Dave Eggers’s hair (or see how it compares to its coiled and vertical appearance in the author photos), judge Dave Eggers on his clothes, see Dave Eggers in his place of work, or draw grand conclusions from the way Dave Eggers drinks a coffee, shakes hands, speaks to other people, maintains or does not maintain eye contact, laughs or does not laugh at jokes, says hello or says goodbye. Nor will we, as already stated, be discussing his literary output. This is no bad thing; choice can be debilitating and before any interviewer can know what an interview will be, it’s first important to know what it isn’t.
A few hours before the appointed time, the call is brought forward, then pushed back again; at first Dave Eggers will be calling me, then I’m told to call him. There’s an inherent fakery in any literary interview; the interviewer presents a self-consciously knowing portrait of the writer, but the portrait is never anything more than an approximation based on scant details. In reality the interviewer knows nothing of the subject, he or she is a hostage to fortune and the whim of the author; the literary interview is always defined by its limitations. If Dave Eggers had emailed me 20 minutes before our scheduled speaking time to say, “We’re going to conduct this interview in iambic pentameter and I only want to talk about toast,” I would have hesitated for only half a second before replying, “Okay, Dave — sounds great!” Since every literary interview is a product of limitations, it seems useful to dwell on the specific limitations of this one for some time here. The best we can say about Dave Eggers based on my 45 minutes talking to him is everything that happens before the interview takes place, and especially that he does not want to talk about his books.
Lionized, celebrated, patronized, and granted, in the last few years, the honor of a low-level denigration campaign by the American internet’s not-quite literati, Dave Eggers has become, in the 15 years since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was published, a public figure to satisfy all moods. It’s hard to escape the sense that other writers, writers far further down the celebrity scale, are jealous of him — jealous of his success, above all, but jealous of the way he’s found it, too: by meshing the skeptical, ironizing, self-consciously playful vocal luxuries of Generation X — the style that made his name — to a more earnest social purpose. Alone among his peers, Dave Eggers manages the double act of being both world-weary and world-conscious. Keeping up with him these days is a full-time job: He runs a publishing empire, cranks out a major new piece of writing every couple of years, ranging across the genres from fiction to film to reportage, and still has a hand in 826 National, the school tutoring non-profit he founded in the early 2000s. “I get bored with myself talking about the usual stuff,” he says on the phone from San Francisco, though scanning the resume that’s clearly not for a want of material to discuss.
Eggers’s voice is scratchy, almost tired, and his diction is still correct enough to suggest the upper-middle-class Chicago of his youth has not yet been totally swallowed by the relaxed-vowel California of his adulthood. He presents — whether with sincere deflection or the rote self-effacement of the artist-interviewee, it’s impossible to say — his work as a painter under the guise of an escape from these limitations — the limitations of the voice, the limitations of the flesh, the limitations of writing. In early February “Idaho,” a new show of his art, will open at the Jules Maeght gallery in downtown San Francisco. Eggers’s drawings have been a regular fixture at Electric Works, a gallery nearby, for over five years, but “Idaho” — the show’s title, he says, will be reflected in the presence of “repurposed road signs and other things you might see driving through Idaho” — is a beast of different scale, bringing in metalwork, taxidermy and large-scale sculpture.
“Painting gives me more pleasure in the moment than anything else,” he says. Eggers has a particularly relaxed way of talking; he seems like a pleasant guy, but that’s a statement as fatuous as saying a country “is beautiful” — after all, which country isn’t? Besides, who cares if he’s not a pleasant guy? “Writing can be fun but it can also be a grind. For me to get any work done when I write, I have to be in a chair for eight hours straight without leaving the house. It takes a long time to write a novel — it’s a very intricate piece of machinery, and if you get one piece out of place, the machine doesn’t work. Painting is more forgiving. it doesn’t have to be the vast interlocking machinery that writing is. I have a couple of giant canvases in the show — it’s a real dance you do with a giant canvas, the physicality is very different, it’s very enjoyable. i’ve never been able to accept how sedentary writing is.”
The paintings Eggers has exhibited to date mostly involve straightforwardly realistic, unerringly untricky (a point of contrast with his early writing) representations of animals, with whimsical, slightly absurdist captions arranged around them. In one, we see a boar, surrounded by the words HOPING FERVENTLY YOU STAY KOSHER; another shows a sloth on a tree branch, with the caption I LACK NOT THE WILL, I LACK ONLY THE WINGS. Many of these creatures are shown in medias res, grappling with the limitations of their own body or quietly resentful, perhaps, at their maker as they attempt to complete some basic, life-affirming task. Mostly the captions are played for laughs, but there’s scope to compare the position of the animals Eggers shows with that of the writer himself — prisoners of biology, all of them.
Joseph Mitchell once said a writer should “walk, constantly.” By the time Mitchell entered his productive years, this was, of course, stale advice: The link between walking and writing was already well sealed. Thoreau, Joyce, Woolf: The list of great writers who were also great walkers counts some major names. The Beats were the great walkers of the mass automobile era. How much of the walking fed the work, and how much of it was an escape from writing? The great paradox of the exhortation for writers to walk is that walking is the one physical activity directly inimical to writing. Walking is dynamic, mobile and sensuous; writing is static, fixed, and monotonous. To be successful as a writer, you need to be comfortable with not moving; but to be successful as a writer — a certain type of writer, at least — you need to move. Writing is defined by both its limitations as a physical act and the extent of their violation.
No one talks about this much, of course. There’s plenty of copy out there to get us excited about walking, but not much extolling the virtues of sitting. The great works of literature are also great works of recumbency, monuments to the heroic ability of their creators to fix their asses to one place for hours and days and weeks and months on end, doing little else but committing words to paper. If, as has been suggested, Wordsworth walked as many as 180,000 miles in his lifetime, it’s likely he spent more than that number of hours in a chair. The great writers weren’t just great walkers; they were also great sitters. Their bums suffered for their art.
How much can one body achieve? This might be another way to look at Eggers’s work. His most memorable books have all centered on an individual engaged in some sort of quest: the trials of sudden parenthood in AHWOSG, the journey across East Africa in What is the What, Zeitoun’s quest to make it out of the swamp (of post-Katrina New Orleans, of US bureaucracy) alive. Like the animals shown in his paintings, these characters chafe at their physical limitations — the chafing makes the drama.
It’s always an appalling crime to seek interpretive clues to an author’s work in their biography. But something like the inverse might work here: Eggers has, through his painting, sought the kind of release from physical limitation (as a writer) typical of his characters. Eggers has self-Eggersed. Sitting still in one place for a long time can get quite lonely. Writing — whisper it — is sometimes boring. “Painting is pure gesture,” Eggers says. “It comes from a more meditative place — much more in the moment and more liberating and joyful in the moment — than writing. With non-fiction, in particular, there’s just a lot of research involved and sense of responsibility to many people. If I can paint a quail or a bobcat and write ridiculous words around it — that is an absurd way to spend the day, and it is an absurd way to exist as a 45-year-old man. Spending your day painting mammals and bats is a nice palate cleanser after working on something draining like a novel. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.”
Perhaps this says nothing more than that, for a certain type of creative person, it’s important to alternate between different forms: standing, sitting, walking, painting, publishing, writing, filming. The day may arrive when it will be possible to walk and write at the same time — smartphones are dragging us there already, of course — but it’s not here yet. Eggers was serious about his painting long before he was serious about his writing; at school, he says, he was “the kid that drew,” and he studied painting as an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In his early 20s he worked as an illustrator: “I was a very bad illustrator and did terrible work that disgraced all the magazines that commissioned me — and I gave up.”
In returning to art, Eggers wants whatever he produces to be as approachable and fun as possible — for his February show, there’s mention, for instance, of a pedicab he’s converted into a giant polar bear. He rails against the elitism of the art world: “Wilfully or not the art world did a disservice to a lot of people and itself by enforcing the elitist posture, where if you don’t understand it you’re dumb, if you don’t like it you’re stupid, and to question things at all is seen as self-evidently ignorant. If I question whether a light tube by Dan Flavin is actually art, I’m seen as ignorant.”
If that sounds like a recipe for breezy, unchallenging Jeff Koons-style populism, Eggers doesn’t seem much to care about the critical reception his approach might generate. Others will debate whether a pedicab converted into a giant polar bear or illustrations of bears with meme-like captions around them are fit to be termed art; Eggers won’t be listening. I’ve already been told prior to our conversation that Eggers pays no attention to reviews or criticism of his work; as an artist and as a writer, his solitude is not simply an exogenous factor of production, it’s actively policed. In art today, Eggers argues, “the museum experience is more enjoyable than the contemporary gallery experience. In film it’s the opposite — new movies are more fun. In writing it’s the same — readings are raucous, fun events. Too often the art world is aloof and totally uncaring whether people come and engage with art or not.”
Every piece of writing is a project. It moves forward, it is kinetic, it projects. Eggers wants his art to have some of the same qualities. There’s a case to be made that Eggers is the most painterly of writers, and the most writerly of painters: He trained as a figure painter and loved, he says, “the biblical painters, Rembrandt, some of the Expressionists, a lot of the Dutch and Flemish painters, and I always wanted to create tableaux that tell a story or evoke a narrative.” That seems a fundamentally inclusive, welcoming, non-alienating way of producing art. If Eggers is to be an artist — and he doesn’t deflect the suggestion more of his time will be given to the form — he will be an artist similar to what he has been as a writer: an artist of good intentions. Dave Eggers has his limits. But he’s trying to move beyond them, to find the space of art in words and the space of writing in art, and he wants us to come along for the ride.