Tuesday, 16 February 2010


The Wild Things

by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers has become a hugely influential figure in American publishing, presiding over his McSweeney's empire like a beneficent dictator, encouraging careers, providing blurb, leaving a legacy for younger generations and even finding time to write a little himself. After the breakthrough memoir A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius there has been fiction, non-fiction, faction, short-stories, articles, screenplays and much else besides. The news that Maurice Sendak's seminal children's book Where The Wild Things Are was to receive the big-screen treatment was made at least palatable by the pairing of Eggers and Spike Jonze at the helm, a duo who might just have the right combination of childishness and vision to make something of a book whose chief virtues are its brevity and distinctive artwork. Accompanying its release comes The Wild Things, 'a novel by Dave Eggers adapted from the illustrated book....and based on the screenplay...' conjuring horrible thoughts of those novelizations of popular films written by authors you've never heard of, or perhaps even worse, the continuation of literary franchises that print the name of the original author nice and large and that of the real writer rather anonymously at the bottom. What could possibly be achieved by a novelisation of the film of the book?

When setting out to write the screenplay together both Eggers and Jonze decided that the Wild Things and Where they Are were to be real. Max was to go on a real journey and encounter real things. That means he has to begin in the real world and my biggest worry starting out was that this would make it all a bit mundane. Max inevitably comes from a broken family, living with his mother and sister and that set-up and the difficult dynamic it has created (with Mom's boyfriend in particular) are at least part of the reason for Max's behaviour. But actually the fleshing out of the story at home isn't the problem, in fact Eggers creates a nice sense of Max's spirit immediately when he is pursued whilst riding his bike home by an over-protective neighbour.

How could he shake her? Would she follow him inside his own house? She was no doubt waitingg to get him alone and indoors, so she could do something to him. She could knock him cold with the coffee canister. Or maybe she'd grab a pillow, pin him down, and suffocate him? That seemed more her style. She had the clear-eyed, efficient look of a murderous nurse.
Now there was barking. Max turned to see that the Scola's dog had joined them, barking at Mrs. Mahoney and nipping her ankles. Mrs. Mahoney took little notice. Her eyes were bigger than ever. The exertion seemed to make her ever-more gleeful.
"Endorphins!" she sang. "Thanks, Max!"
"Please," he said. "What are you gonna do to me?" It was about ten miles houses until his own.
"Keep you safe," she said "from all this."

The Wild Things in your life needn't be fantastical. The strains at home elevate petty squabbles into heated rows and it isn't long before Max sees again that mask, that costume that enables him to show how he is 'boss of this house and all of the world known and unknown.'

Then Max caught sight of his wolf suit, hanging on the back of the closet door. He hadn't worn it in weeks. He'd gotten it for Christmas three years before, the last one with both his parents, and he'd immediately put it on, and kept it on for the rest of school break. It had been too big then, but his mom had pinned it and taped it to make it work until he grew into it.
Now he and it were the perfect size...

So Max's journey is one of flight from domestic unhappiness which is fine, if a little different from the magical forest that grows in his own bedroom in the original book. His sailing is real, time consuming and arduous, so that he finally arrives on the strange island exhausted, and then we finally meet the titular beasts. Strangely it is here that the fleshing out makes the story mundane. The Wild Things have names (overtly ordinary ones at that), there is conflict amongst them and they seem on the whole to be a rather depressed and unhappy bunch. There is a 'wild rumpus' but it has consequences and the time that Max spends with them has moments of tension, release, conflict and fear; he is a self-appointed head of state whose subjects begin to lose patience with his lack of positive impact. It makes for quite a sad read really, although a brief one, aand one which I think misses the point of the original. And this is where we come to what's interesting about the original. I mentioned to my wife what I thought the book was about (boy realises that being wild all the time isn't all it's cracked up to be and being responsible for others makes you realise how hard it is to please) and she had got something completely different from it (it's ok to go a little crazy). Our son who hears it read to him at least once a week probably gets something else again. The original is enigmatic, magical and open to interpretation and enjoyment whereas the novel is by its very nature specific, mundane and unlikely to be read again. The prose is clearly written for a young audience which makes it all feel like short sentences written in big type (it is pretty big type actually) and I couldn't help returning to my original query once I finished the last line: Why bother?


Trevor 16 February 2010 at 16:54  

I read the excerpt that was published in The New Yorker last summer. I was actually anxious to read it, thinking that if someone was going to go through the trouble of novelising something so perfect that they would really go through the trouble to do it well. I hated it. It is the only story I read last year that made me angry. It was, as you say, mundane, and it closed off worlds of interpretation. I couldn't believe it was published in The New Yorker, and I've scowled at the book whenever I see it in the stores now.

William Rycroft 16 February 2010 at 23:48  

It's a book I wouldn't have read if it hadn't been gifted to me Trevor and whilst I couldn't be bothered to get angry about it it seems an even more futile exercise in retrospect. My suspicion is that Eggers may be ploughing a far more creative furrow with his books like What Is The What and the upcoming Zeitoun, the 'faction' I mentioned in the post. I say suspect because I haven't read either yet, Zeitoun is on the way, but others have seemed to respond more positively to his novel treatments of real events and people.

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