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NEW YORKER Stories

Dave Eggers

"Max at Sea"

August 24, 2009

The clues were not helpful. Yes, they all added up to a correct answer to the question, what is this story about? A full-page photograph, credited to Warner Bros? A highly anthropomorphic monster face? But even as the bells were ringing out to one another, linking stray bits of information in my brain, I was baffling what they wanted to tell me. My resistance, I can now see, was immense. The ability to phrase another, sharper question could this have something to do with that book by Maurice Sendak was simply disabled; there is no better way to put it. That option was unavailable. And so I plodded on, trying to make what I could of "Max at Sea." I tried to read it as what I believed it had to be: a piece of fiction intended for adult readers. The possibility that the magazine would publish an excerpt from the novelization of a screenplay (a tie-in! bad enough right there!) based on a beloved children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, I rejected before it had the chance to cross the horizon. I had to be told that that's what it was. Only then did I turn to a clue that I had missed, lying among the "Contributors" credits.

There is, obviously, nothing to say about Dave Eggers's fragment except that the first part, set realistically in a suburban home, is extremely well done; that the middle part, in which Max drifts into fantasy on a small boat, is done very well; and that the final part, with its peculiar beasts, makes no sense at all. Although I knew of Mr Sendak's book, of course, and was familiar with the style of its drawings, I had not actually read the book. I don't know whether I was aware of it when my daughter was young enough to be entertained by it, but I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't have approved. There is something horribly vernacular about Mr Sendak's art "horribly," I say, because it seems designed to make creatures of fable look like denizens of the Upper West Side. I should much rather have the denizens of the Upper West Side look like creatures of fable! So: no Maurice Sendak for me. If Mr Eggers had been novelizing one of Bernard Waber's books about Lyle the Crocodile, I might have felt differently and of course I'd have known exactly what was going on right away. I'm not going to deny my Upper East Side snobberies.

Nevertheless: to read something, to wonder what the hell is going on, and to find out eventually that it's all some damn-fool nonsense that oughtn't to have come my way in the first place. What on earth is The New Yorker doing, publishing a story for children as fiction? No amount of fancy dancing will distract me from that question.

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