This quarter, I am taking a creative writing workshop, in which I write, read, and discuss short stories. Most of my English classes require me to analyze literature (that is, Literature, with a capital “L”) from a very theoretical standpoint, digging deep into the writing for its Meaning and Significance. What does this piece of literature say about society? The human condition? What is the significance of the song quoted on page 73? And the color red? It appears multiple times in the text—it must mean something.
Too often, we analyze literature to death, continually converting our subjective responses into stiff, practiced, and dry argumentative papers. After a while, it seems like this is the only way that we are allowed to talk about literature. We can only express an opinion if we have textual evidence to support it. We have to prove the legitimacy of our thoughts and ideas. It’s easy to forget that we, as readers, respond subjectively and emotionally to literature.
My creative writing workshop, however, allows me and my peers to look at short stories as writers. We share our favorite lines from the text. We rant about characters that we hate and praise the characters that we love. We explore the author’s stylistic choices in order to discover how he or she evoked emotion within us—or how he/she failed to evoke emotion within us. That is, we read and talk about stories in order to become better storytellers.
It is through this lens that I read Dave Eggers’s short story, “The Alaska of Giants and Gods,” which appeared in The New Yorker this November.
She’d piled them into this rented R.V. and driven off, no plan in mind. The manufacturers had named the vehicle the Chateau, but that was thirty years ago, and now it was falling apart and dangerous to its passengers and to all who shared the highway with it. But after a day on the road her kids seemed fine with the crumbling machine, the close quarters, the chaos.
“The Alaska of Giants and Gods” is a story about a recently-divorced mother, Josie, who takes her children on a spontaneous trip to Alaska via rented R.V. — without the permission of their father, of course.
There are three things in particular that I loved about his story, from a writer’s perspective:
1. I really loved Eggers’s skillful treatment of characterization through physical description, an example being:
“She was a black-eyed animal with a burst of irrationally red hair.”
It’s easy to settle for superficial and simplified descriptions—she pushed her brown hair out of her face. But these surface-level descriptions rarely say anything about the character’s personality. However, Eggers manages to present two different angles of characterization in just one concise sentence, something I greatly admire.
2. Writers have enough difficulty individualizing their characters’ voices in the first person. Eggers manages to capture Josie’s voice—even a hilariously drunk Josie—through third person narration. He incorporates her thoughts or at least the tone of her thoughts in the narration, as in:
“Surely she’d been there. Did that one train, the main train, go to Luxembourg? Of course it did. She pictured a beer garden. In a castle. On a hill. By the sea. What sea? Some sea.”
I could hear her; I could feel her energy. And yet, we only get snippets of her actual voice (dialogue). I think that I connect most strongly to characters whose voices I know; they’re much more credible this way.
3. I also admired how Eggers stays true to his characters, even when they may verge on unlikeable—and it is that very honesty that makes them all the more real and charming. Josie has made some questionable decisions. Actually, she’s kind of a mess. But I still feel for her. I still wish the best for her. That is because she seems so human and so vulnerable.
I hope that you all enjoy Dave Eggers’s story as much as I did! If you’d like to read it, click here.
Post submitted by JoAnna