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© New Yorker

I have heard of Dave Eggers before. He’s a writer, editor and publisher, co-founder of the literacy project 826 Valencia and founder of ScholarMatch. In 2000 his memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (In German: “Ein herzzerreißendes Werk von umwerfender Genialität”, Kiepenheuer&Witsch 2005) was published and received favorable, good reviews. His 2013-novel “The Circle”, issued in 2014 in Germany, is a bestseller as well, so I was intrigued to see a short story by him in the New Yorker-issue of 17th November 2014, called “The Alaska of Giants and Gods”.

“There is proud happiness, happiness born of doing admirable things in the light of day, years of good work, and afterward being tired and content and surrounded by family and friends, enjoying a sumptuous meal, ready for a deserved rest—sleep or death, it would not matter.”

Eggers’ writing is not bad, sometimes pretentious and cheesy[1], but with great passages and descriptions about the motivations and feelings the characters have. For example, his main protagonist Josie – who’s on the run in an old R.V. with her two children from her ex-husband who wants to have custody of the kids, but also her tumultuous life in general – feels like she has no identity, like she’s without any kind of tradition or (family) history. “She had been born a blank. Her parents were blanks. All her relatives were blanks, though many were addicts, and she had a cousin who identified as an anarchist. But otherwise Josie’s people were blanks. They were from nowhere. To be American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank. So Josie was a truly great American.” Arriving in Seward, Alaska, they meet a man named Charlie and he invites them to see some magicians on a ship, to experience something worthwhile, magical, interesting…

I have so many thoughts and feelings after finishing this story. For example, why did the story remind me of a novella by Thomas Mann, “Mario and the Magician”? What stands magic for in this story, what symbolizes it? (Maybe it’s about people wanting to be interesting or seen as somebody? Nobody in the audience reacts to the ordinary (magicians and conjurers), only the special is the solution and makes them happy and feel fulfilled[2].) Is Josie’s identity-crisis a symbol for the state of the “American mind” at the moment or is it just a woman having a manic-episode, in short: Is the magic-show a hallucination, a psychotic dream? And what is she searching for? In her own words: “[Where was the Alaska of magic and clarity and pure air? This place was choked with the haze of some far-off forest fire, and it was not majestic, no. It was cluttered and tough. And where were the heroes?] Find me someone bold, she asked the dark trees before her. Find me someone of substance, she asked the mountains beyond.”

“The Alaska of Giants and Gods” made me think a lot. On the one hand it seems pretentious, cliched (A woman in her 30’s with an identity-crisis asking herself why she chose to do the things the way she did them. Hello, Emma Bovary.) and Josie’s a unreliable narrator, her behavior as a mother, woman and human abnormal to dangerous (One of the first things she mentions is, that the R.V. they drive in is unsafe). But on the other hand:  Dave Egger’s writing style makes the story fascinating, even though the plot is lacking.

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[1] Maybe that was intentional, but a phrase like that sounds strange and illogical: “The next day was nothing, nothing at all, only the bright sun and 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 audience of untethered people—hundreds of Americans who don’t know a whole lot about their ancestry—and they’re on a boat meandering through Arctic waters, no fixed address. I thought a group of people like that would respond most not to magic but to someone onstage who might tell them even the tiniest bit about their origins.”

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