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.
Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

“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.

By | 2015-02-03T01:05:34+00:00 November 10th, 2014|Categories: Dave Eggers, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Jan Wilkens November 11, 2014 at 12:58 am

    The story is indeed an “accidental stew.” First I must qualify my comments by saying I appreciate Dave Eggers as a writer. I truly respect his passion and outreach efforts to help young people become aware of how writing and recording ideas can be healing. The studio 826 Valencia is a fabulous idea and I hope to visit the Chicago site one day. That being said…the story was a mess. Careless and in need of some serious editing. All the mixed metaphors, overblown similes and excessive explanation points made for a story that read like a first draft rather than a polished and edited piece. The main character was so self-pitying and ridiculous I wanted to report her to authorities. What was she doing for gods sake driving around Alaska?
    I love that you referenced the film, Insomnia, Betsy. There was a cool quote in the film when the Al Pacino character meets a woman and she says ,”there are two kinds of people in Alaska; people who were born here and people who are running away from something….I wasn’t born here.” The stories main character is a cliche of that very description. She is running away from her failed career, her children’s father and her responsibilities. She is not realistic or believable and she certainly isn’t likable The symbols of redemption, turning wine into water, disappearing and magic were a mash up of ideas that all led to a conclusion that was silly.
    I have never been on a cruise but I have taken several theater bus tours and find the demographic and culture as a subject kind of an easy target. Yes, the people are old, yes they can be boorish and unsophisticated but ultimately they are pretty harmless and often delighted to be having an adventure. Also, we have see this done too many times.
    After the excellent short story, Ordinary Sins, from the Oct 20th issue, this story was hard to accept. That story also had a soon-to-be-single mother, lots of religious symbolism and characters that were deeply flawed and so achingly human. There were lines in ,”Ordinary Sins” that must have been worked over dozens if times to achieve a sentence that was beautiful…”If she mentioned his books-how many he had and how busy the must keep him-Father Paul generally cracked some mild self-deprecating joke and changed the subject to television. As if out of consideration for Crystal.”
    Compared to, “she dragged them to Alaska, and had driven them, and their feces…” The sentence spins out from there into another unedited mess.
    I didn’t intend a comparison but this story was a tough one to process.

  2. zinodondon November 13, 2014 at 9:29 am

    ‘so we cannot really take in the significance of the kidnapped child’s comment: “the man knows where I come from.”’

    Take note: This comment was made by Charlie, the old man who takes them into the boat, not the child. Love your comments!

  3. Roger November 13, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    The tedious magicians were a disappointment. Josie’s fantasy about being a tugboat captain – inspired by fewer than three glasses of wine – was a bigger disappointment. But the biggest disappointment was that Dave Eggers wrote a story about the magicians and the tugboat fantasy, and that the New Yorker published it.

  4. lotusgreen November 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I am astonished at my disagreement with the previous comments! I believe this is the first Dave Eggers that I have read, and it left me wanting more!

    Now I have to admit, I’m a sucker for anything with a magician in it, and this had several, so while that targeted me as an instant goner, it wasn’t the only thing I liked:

    These lonely old men, Josie thought, with their wet lips and small eyes, their necks barely holding up their heavy heads full of their many mistakes and the funerals of friends.

    “Josie came to understand that this stranger was inviting them, her and her two kids, all of them unknown to this man, onto the cruise ship docked in Seward, where, that evening, there would be an elaborate magic show featuring a half-dozen acts, including, the old man was thrilled to convey, a magician from Luxembourg. “Luxembourg,” he said, “can you imagine?”

    “I want to go!” Ana said. Josie didn’t think it mattered much that Ana wanted to go—she had no intention of following this man onto a magic-show ship—but when Ana said those words Charlie’s face took on a glow so powerful Josie thought he might ignite.

    Josie paged through the years of her life, trying to remember a decision she had made that she was proud of, and she found nothing.

    Josie began to feel for this man. He’d been a magician in grade school, no doubt. He’d been pretty then, too, with lashes so long she could see them now, fifty feet away, and as an adolescent, apart from his peers but not concerned about this, he had driven with his mother forty miles to the nearest city, to get the right equipment for his shows, the right boxes—with wheels!—the velvet bags, the collapsing canes. He’d loved his mother then and had known how to say so, with conviction, perhaps with a flourish, and his unguarded love for her had made his friendlessness unimportant to him and to her, and now she was so proud that he had made it, was a professional magician, travelling the world making magic, welcoming magic into his life. And after all that, Josie thought, these elderly assholes won’t clap for him.

    Everything in the act had to be on wheels, so it could be turned around. It was a rule of magic that all boxes must be turned around and around, to prove there were no strings, that no one was hiding just behind. But if something wasn’t turned around would the audience revolt? Did they ever ask, Excuse me, why hasn’t someone turned the box around? Turn the box around! My God, turn that box around!

    Then it came to her. She was sure, at that moment, that she was meant to be a tugboat captain. My God, she thought, my God. At thirty-eight, she finally knew! She would lead the ships to safety. That was why she’d come to Seward! There had to be a tugboat school in town. It all made sense. She could do that, and her days would be varied but always heroic.

    “Hear that?” he said to Paul. He turned to Josie and Ana, his eyes wet and his hands trembling. “Hear that? That man knows where I come from.”

    By the time we have reached the end, I remember that, “for a time [they] watched a happy little tugboat chugging to and fro across Resurrection Bay.” A tugboat captain, that made some sense. But then the end, ring in the chorus from “Amazing Grace,” I once was lost but now I’m found….” — the gratification of someone, anyone, knowing where you’re from.

  5. Betsy November 15, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Jan – thanks for your reminders about Dave Eggers’ work at 826 Valencia.

    Lily – Quotes are always a plus! But I have to dissent!

    The one about being a tugboat captain makes me feel that not only does this girl drink too much, she also is having a manic episode which will do neither her children, herself, or her potential clients (if she ever had any) any good. Learning to manage a boat is not like learning to drive a car. There’s fog, for instance, and ice, and snow, not to mention the maintenance that a boat requires. And then there’s navigation. I can buy that this is what she realizes she should have become – some kind of fireman. I can buy that she is the kind of person better suited to access to regular doses of adrenalin.

    But actually, I think being a tugboat captain is similar to dentistry. There’s a lot of careful maneuvering in bad weather. I don’t buy that she is capable of not being negligent in this job either. If this is her decision making process – drinking and magical thinking – this seems like one more bad decision. She seems to have no idea what would be involved in the preparation for such a job, the big money required, the time, what her children might need in the meantime. After all – her law suit ruined her.

    I bet most tug-boat captains have grown up around boats – have that world as a second skin. I imagine some of them have been in the Coast Guard or gone to schools like the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. I even wondered if this was Eggers’ point – that this woman is in a continual downward spiral. That, of course, can make a very good story.

    The tip-off seems to be her own words – that being a tug-boat captain would be “always heroic”. Firemen know that a lot of their job is maintaining the vehicles and practicing routines in staged fires. No job is “always heroic”. There are the inevitable losses, even when you have done everything as right as possible. Why wasn’t being a dentist heroic?

    The character feels out of control in a dangerous way, and perhaps my problem with the story was my own discomfort with the unresolved hallucinatory nature of this character’s thinking. The story just struck a nerve. If that was what he was aiming at – Eggers has probably succeeded.

  6. lotusgreen November 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    “But actually, I think being a tugboat captain is similar to dentistry.” I could not love this comment more.

    Well, I don’t know if it says far more about me than it does about Eggers’ story, but…. I think she was not negligent in her treatment of that woman, but that, like she said, she gave up her will to defend herself. I’m not convinced, given the evidence presented that she is mistreating her children, but then… I never had children — maybe that lends perspective. Thirdly, I have actually known a tugboat captain, owned his own boat and everything, Port of Oakland (California) — my old typesetter was married to him! I was even on the boat!

    While I don’t mean to over-simplify the preparations required to do that job well, I think had any given woman crawled into Ike’s pocket (that was the captain’s name) for a while, she could be shown the ropes in not too long a time. I don’t think Ike went to school to study it… but lived in and around it for decades, yes. But was she really serious about this new profession? Maybe it was just the first possibility occurring to her of a way to begin her voyage to resurrection.

    –Lily

  7. Roger November 15, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    I think she was depicted as drunk (albeit after fewer than three glasses of wine) when she fantasized about being a tugboat captain, so I didn’t evaluate the practicality of the fantasy. I’m less critical of the tugboat fantasy than I am about the many implausibilities of the story: I doubt 30-year-old RVs are made available for rent; I doubt she could drive the RV even when sober; I doubt any mother with a scintilla of sanity would be doing what she does (e.g., her older child should be in school, unless the story is set during summer or spring/winter break, which I don’t think was indicated); the lame magicians were all ridiculous; why would the cruise ship passengers all be senior citizens; the tongue tumor/lawsuit thing was silly. Etc.

  8. Rosalind November 17, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Where is the land of giants and gods? Is it our own Zip Codes? Eggers packs this short story with much to think about. What is responsible behavior? What is magical thinking? Aren’t we all vulnerable to flights of fantasy and wishful thinking? Alaska and cruise ships attract those of us that want to escape reality. For me, neither cruising or Alaska appeals to me.. “New life” impossible.. Sad story..

  9. Sean H November 22, 2014 at 2:04 am

    I’ve been an Eggers skeptic for years — at his worst he’s the most tedious sort of whinging altruist — but every now and then he does something truly luminous, and so I haven’t given up on him entirely. This story is definitely a strong recommendation for his talent and far from a “very slight entertainment.” Overall, Betsy’s review gets lost in solipsism and semantics and forgets to look at the story objectively; she even misattributes the last line. Though at first I was dubious of this piece myself with lines like “There was Paul, seven years old, a gentle, slow-moving boy with the cold caring eyes of an ice priest,” the story quickly improves.
    There is to Josie’s fall from grace as a dentist a socio-economic angle touching on the randomness of luck mixed with a surrender, Josie’s most notable character trait: she surrenders to the dying woman, to alcohol, to the pleadings of the old man (Charlie), to the voice of reality, to the blankness of what it means to be an American. But she shows a spiteful defiance to her former husband, engendering her desire for invisibility and the move to Alaska where she is trying to slowly wade into a new life; the town in Alaska she alights to is Seward, an anagram for waders, and aqueous matters turn to weighty ones, real gravitas here as Eggers uses the scene with the otters to point out the absurdity of theism (Eggers is a noted atheist), also present near the conclusion with “She was being pulled back from the light, like an almost-angel now being led back to the mundanity of earthly existence.”
    Mundanity is a seminal theme, with the Zip Codes triumphing over magic, and with the banality of at-death’s-door Charlie, one of the “lonely old men…with wet lips and small eyes, their necks barely holding up their heavy heads full of their many mistakes and the funerals of friends,” and it is Charlie who draws the curtain on the story, moving from all his “See that?”s to a final “Hear that?” And what does he hear? Pure, undistilled mortality, the atheist’s greatest burden: “That man knows where I come from.” Where are we all going? Death. And where do we all come from? A mother. This is a story about the life cycle, in some ways reminiscent of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as we see Charlie as a potential future avatar for Josie, who will surely be small-eyed and wet-lipped and heavy-headed before long, a life defined by its many mistakes and maybe not even the funerals of friends to attend because she seems unlikely of building a large social circle, much like a female version of the old man drinking alone every night in Hemingway.
    Giants and gods we are not. We are infinitely small, even if we procreate, or enjoy a poorly remembered backpacking through Europe experienced in our youth, or devote ourselves to the minutiae of whatever craft or career we pursue (the reflections of Josie on the hard work of the earnest aspirant magicians reads as a non-MFA-er like Eggers sending up the self-seriousness of the dutiful student model of writing). The happiness of the first paragraph is not attainable for Josie, or most of us. Most of us, the best we can do is a well-lighted cafe or a cruise ship magic show, the happiness of our personal slums, which are at least a remedy from true blankness or an existence where “the next day was nothing, nothing all, only the bright sun coming desperately over the obsidian water.” This is a story about a desperate woman, and a quite serious and quite good one at that.

  10. Betsy November 22, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Sean, thank you both for your careful reading of Dave Eggers and your correction to me – The last line is indeed said by the old man, not Josie’s son.

    “Mundanity is a seminal theme, with the Zip Codes triumphing over magic, and with the banality of at-death’s-door Charlie, one of the “lonely old men…with wet lips and small eyes, their necks barely holding up their heavy heads full of their many mistakes and the funerals of friends,” and it is Charlie who draws the curtain on the story, moving from all his “See that?”s to a final “Hear that?” And what does he hear? Pure, undistilled mortality, the atheist’s greatest burden: “That man knows where I come from.”

  11. Ken November 28, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    I had enjoyed this in a sort of surfacey way, as a fun, light read with an obvious superego/id dichotomy going on within Josie and also as a good description of the momentary grandiosity of alcoholic intoxication (part of the id side of the dichotomy) giving way to sobering reality. Plus it was a pretty funny takedown of certain topics. The comments above by Sean made me think maybe there’s actually more here than I’d thought, particularly with the ending. Per what I’d said earlier about Quade–whose story is much better than this I think–Eggers does succeed well in interweaving (without blurring) his authorial voice with some indirect free style passages from Josie’s perspective.

  12. Greg December 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Thank you Sean for helping me understand what the author was conveying. And your comparison to Hemingway’s masterpiece was a delight for me! Thanks again Sean for making this story special for me!

  13. […] the cold wind coming desperately over the obsidian water.” (Pointed out by Betsy Pelz at the Mookse and the Gripes) [2] Eggers in an interview with the New Yorker about the identity-topic: “Josie’s among an […]

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