Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Dave Egger’s “The Alaska of Giants and Gods” was originally published in the November 17, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Alaska of Giants and Gods” is a very slight entertainment, mostly set in a cruise ship that is docked in Seward, Alaska. A young mother has run away to the north with the children her husband would like to have with him. She is a dentist who has been (perhaps rightly) ruined by a lawsuit. The story, set not far from Resurrection Bay, is filled with condescension and spleen.
That’s a little strong, I know, but that’s what I felt. I have never been on a cruise ship, mostly because my husband says he does not like to be on a boat where he is not the captain, and somewhat because I am afraid of galloping norovirus. Even so, I get the feeling from this story that Eggers had been persuaded to go on an Alaskan cruise and found the experience tawdry.
I have been to Alaska, however. My husband and I went on a cheap (LONG) flight to Anchorage organized by our friend, a high school history teacher, and then we all rented RVs and set off on our separate ways. (Our friend had been to Alaska at least five times. He was a halibut nut. When we returned to Hartford, there was a school bus waiting for us at the airport because there were ten of us and 40 boxes of frozen halibut, which is one of the kings of fish. Fish and chips in Alaska are a supreme experience.)
I have the feeling that Eggers also rented an RV and hated it almost as much as my husband did. Dealing with the liquid shit problem was something that made my husband recoil. And still, we rose above that challenge. Alaska stunned us. The light, the water, the endless peaks, the animals, the flowers that were as big as dinner plates! Oh well. I confess, we are in the midst of planning a return trip for ptarmigan and birds and also Denali, which we never saw the first time. But we won’t rent an RV.
I have the feeling that Eggers is rebelling against all the people like me who told him that Alaska had revived them. I get the feeling that he couldn’t get over Sarah Palin, couldn’t get over how much he hated the cruise ship, and couldn’t get over the misery of being in an RV. (My husband and I, after being four days cooped up together in the “rack of doom” had an epic fight one day while eating lunch in our “kitchen.” I was so unhappy I lay down after lunch and went unconscious for four hours. Revived, I realized that I had had an Al Pacino Alaska experience — remember Insomnia? Where Pacino goes crazy from lack of sleep induced by the seductive long days of the Alaska summer? I had been out for four nights straight taking photographs until midnight and then sleeping just until the sun came pouring through our rack of doom windows. So I was sleeping maybe three or four hours. I was getting high on that. But once we realized that I was crazy for lack of sleep, and my husband was crazy for lack of regular plumbing, we settled down and let Alaska do its work.)
I think Eggers really wanted to write a (true) story about how much a cruise ship experience makes you drink, how much a cruise ship experience somehow dilutes the magnificence of Canada. Or maybe he wanted to write about how much Sarah Palin annoys him. His main character sure annoys him.
The story does not have the writerly attention which I think it deserves (there is a description of light on the water that feels impossible to me: “bright sun” on “obsidian water.” Obsidian is brown to black. I have photographs of Turnagain Arm and also Resurrection Bay in which the sun is shining brightly and the water is blue. I think that water is dark, and might be called obsidian, only when the sky is gray. But then the water would be gray, not black. When the water would be truly obsidian would be at night, and maybe in moonlight. Night, when the cruise ships dock in Seward is very short — between midnight (sort of) and four, and so the whole phrase (“bright sun . . . over the obsidian water) makes no sense.
Josie thinks: “To be born American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank.” I do not argue that a person could think this. After all, Josie had been in Europe once for three months, but she couldn’t remember whether or not she’d been to Luxembourg. So she herself is a fairly blank person. My annoyance with the story is probably based on this thought that Josie has. Whatever generality I might make about Americans, I don’t think this is it. One of my friends of 40 years has stories of her family that stretch back to Sicily in the twenties. I think her grandchildren will know those stories, too. Another of my friends — well I could go on and on, and so could you. I don’t know if Eggers teaches. I have sensed in other writers who teach that they have a severe impatience with the ignorance of their students. Sometimes what I wonder is if they are not very good teachers. Also, I sometimes wonder if colleges, where most writers teach, are exemplars of bad teaching. As for Josie, and her diagnosis: to label the true American truly blank — this is an explosive generality that I don’t think the story is able to manage.
But to return to the work at hand, I love the story’s first two paragraphs. I think they are terrific. The story is almost worth it for the promise of those two paragraphs — on the opposition of the ideal and the real — something I have been thinking a lot about, since I have been immersed in Roberto Bolaño for the past six weeks.
I also like the problem which the story sets up: that it is often when people reach their early thirties that they come to their senses. The story suggests that a person could make all the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons and have a need to be set down beside Resurrection Bay. These are all promising beginnings.
The use of magic in the story is interesting. I get the sense (from the title) that Eggers is exploring the American yearning for the quick fix, our magical thinking, our taste for religious experiences, our split personality regarding science, and perhaps our ignorance regarding the role myth plays in our lives. But there is an incoherence in the development of all this.
To me, Josie feels in need of a novel. Her disinterest in her own work has perhaps caused a woman to die. There is a possibility that there is no way she would have ever seen the woman’s problem, and that she needs to find a way to forgive herself for her disinterest. But it is also possible her incompetence killed the woman. Either way, she has the need of a magical resurrection — but all this story does lay out her profound need for resurrection. There is hardly any hope for resolution. In addition, she appears to have kidnapped her children, but this seems to be of not very much interest to the writer.
I usually enjoy the way stories end. I like endings that are paradoxical. The ending of this story attempts that sense of paradox, but I don’t think it succeeds. We are too distracted — by the woman with the tumor in her tongue, the old man who seems to be leering, the mother who has kidnapped her kids, the mother who has three drinks and gets drunk but is also with her children, the Americans who are completely blank, the Americans who are so uneducated that Europe bounces off them, the RV sewage system, the sun that turns the sea black — so we cannot really take in the significance of the kidnapped child’s comment: “the man knows where I come from.”
Speaking of spleen, as I did in my introduction, the spleen may be my own. I keep thinking of T. C. Boyle’s Alaska, the vast, cruel Alaska he uses to great effect in “Drop City.” I would emphasize that Boyle has very little affection for the foolish, ignorant Americans he satirizes in “Drop City,” but the acid of the book is so spot on, and the elements of the book so coherent, the reader is able to accept it all. If you go to Alaska for effect, you have to bear in mind Boyle and Krakauer and London, for starters.
Eggers’ own pre-occupations swamp the story. Josie remarks that Seward (gorgeous, pristine, interesting Seward) sound like sewer. It is true that boats and ships use the ocean as a dump and a sewer, and this image is worthy of a great short story or a great novel. But it is just one of so many witticisms suspended in this piece that the story, in the end, is a kind of accidental stew.
I just watched the great Favreau movie Chef, in which an on-line reviewer who can’t cook himself ruins a chef who can. I don’t flatter myself that I have either the talent or the reach of that reviewer, but I do take seriously my responsibility to be respectful. Usually, that means taking a story on its own terms. I just couldn’t locate what Dave Eggers’ terms were.