The Wild Things by Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s Books, 2009.
(hardback, fur-less edition) 287 pages.
Have you seen Where the Wild Things Are (2009)? Director Spike Jonze did an excellent job with it. I highly recommend the film. Dave Eggers helped Jonze write the screenplay. Up to that point I only really know Eggers from The Best American Nonrequired Reading series he publishes annually.
The Wild Things was published after the film and incorporates much of the screenplay but is not a faithful reproduction.
If you’ve seen the movie, you will notice that the story here hews closely to the movie in many places, and departs in others. When sitting down to write this book, I thought at first that I would more or less transcribe the movie. But along the way, while getting lost, Max-like, in the thicket of the plot, I found other pathways into and out of the island, and generally added my own interpretations to the story of Max. The children’s book max is, after all, a version of Maurice, and the movie Max is a version of Spike. The Max of this book then is some combination of Maurice’s Max, Spike’s Max, and the Max of my own boyhood. Dave Eggers (The Wild Things “Acknowledgements” 287)
The differences do not create a flaw, however they did distract me. I was reading along with the film reeling alongside in my head. I had those moments of ‘I wish I’d read the book first;’ which is ridiculous because the book came second. So if you haven’t seen the film, read The Wild Things. And I am assuming you’ve read Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963)—if you haven’t, you should start there.
The writing is good. The story is enjoyable on multiple levels. Eggers makes a good reading of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. You can glimpse the illustrated moments from Sendak’s books even as Eggers makes the story his own.
Actor Max Records, the Max from the film, is excellent. Under the lens he evokes many of the emotional conflicts of his character. The book, of course, has available the internal machinations. Max is made even more delightful. You ache for him, and you hold your breath when you just know that an idea or choice is not going to go well; but Eggers allows for Max to change without becoming unrecognizable. Eggers wouldn’t tame the beast, or extinguish the wildness of boy, but he would try to soothe him. It is Eggers treatment of his Max that is lovely and endearing, and functions as a sharp criticism against those who would criticize (or perhaps misunderstand) “wild” childhood behaviors. True, Max’s family is fairly dysfunctional, and surely his behaviors are spurred by some of this. As influential as familial climates and community environs are, Max is still a boy and must navigate that internal landscape as well—or reconcile the internal with the external in some way.
Exploring the landscapes and possible reconciliations, the internal is made external on the Island where the Wild Things are—where Max would be King; a foreign King. Plenty of the beasts could be read as parallels, or reflections of different facets of Max and those he interacts with in ‘real’ life.
[Max’s] thoughts, he knew, sometimes behaved like the scattering birds of his neighborhood. Everywhere on Max’s block were quail—strange, flop-topped birds reluctant to fly. One moment the quail would be assembled, in a straight row, a family, eating the seed from the ground, with one standing guard atop a low fencepost, watching for intruders. Then with the slightest sound, they all would scatter in a dozen directions, swerving and disappearing into the thicket.
Every so often max felt his thoughts could be straightened out, that they could be put in a row and counted; they could be made to behave. There were days when he could read and write for hours on end, when he understood everything said to him in every class, when he could eat dinner calmly and help clean up, and then play quietly alone in the living room.
But there were other times, other days, most days really, when the thoughts did not line up. Days when he chased the various memories and impulses as the veered and scattered away from him, hiding in the thicket of his mind.
And it seemed that when this happened, when he couldn’t make sense of something, when the thoughts did not flow from one to the other, that on the heels of the scattering quail he did things and said things that he wished he had not said or done.
Max wondered why he was the way he was. […] There were so many things he’d done, so many things he’d broken or torn or said, and always he knew he’d done them, but could only half-understand why. (33-4)
I like that Max isn’t bad or naughty or out-of-control just for the sake of being those things. He has reasons, and some are fairly logical considering. He is also still growing…which is fascinating how the mature and immature are juxtaposed in this little person. He is capable of many things: negotiating his neighborhood, piloting a boat, constructing things etc. by himself. Yet he is still learning to think out the consequences of actions or consider and remember others’ wants, desires, and motivations past his own. He is learning to navigate his emotions and the emotions of those around him; it is exhausting and perilous work.
In the film there is the increasing tension of violence, that ever-present underlying dangerous edge to the beast. In the book the tension is less underlying. Even Catherine, who is the friendliest of the beasts gives us an uncomfortable few minutes with Max in the book. Alexander, the goat boy, comes across uglier in the book; and a realization that Max and he are very much alike is more crystalline.
The beasts are a bit primitive in form (they are beasts), but speak most civilized, ““Carol, can I speak to you for a second?” Max was astounded. Had that sentence just been uttered? It was said with such casual sophistication that his conception of the creatures was exploded. They weren’t just grunting monsters: they spoke like people” (105). They are huge and lumbering creatures, but graceful, “their movements were nimble, deft” (103). They can growl and gnash teeth, but sing with incredible beauty, “It was the prettiest music Max had ever heard, and the fact that it could exist, that it could be made by these lumbering animals, seemed to render small and forgettable any problems that had ever existed among them” (238). And the beasts are utterly transparent, emotionally—almost helplessly so.
The Wild Things spends the first 90 pages getting acquainted with Max and his ‘real’ world. There are painful interactions, but also very amusing ones. Max comes across as a bit of a remnant, an odd creature amidst the new expectations of boyhood. Elderly Mr. Beckmann recognizes Max for who he is, or should/could be, “So you’re in trouble. So what? […] Boys are supposed to get in trouble. Look at you. You’re built for trouble” (67). This image is in opposition to the new neighborhood residents Mrs. Mahoney and her son Clay who “was pale and his head too big” (9). (The moldable) Clay couldn’t come out and play because “he is at his quilting class […] Max didn’t know what a quilting class was, but it sounded a lot less fun than making icicle-spears and throwing them at birds, which had been on Max’s mind” (11). What follows is a comedic sequence of Clay’s mother wanting to protect the lone child bicyclist while becoming (to his mind) the predator she would seek to protect him from.
For those 90 beginning pages the reader is given two at the end; the return home. Like the picture book and the film, Max finds his dinner hot. He is ravenous with hunger for food, and he is also tender and quiet with his mother. He is still in his wolf-suit, but he is coming to some sense of how to be manageably wild. There is little to no promise that things will be of greater ease for Max at home and in the community. He chose to leave the Island, to not be consumed by the beasts. He learned something of himself on the Island, and something of his mother, “He stood above his mother for some time, knowing her new, really almost knowing her now” (285); really almost.
There is something to reading this book and thinking of childhood (of even now?). The transparency and honesty of wanting and needing, of hurting and celebrating. The rawness is lovely, and terrifying. Sendak created a book that is timeless and ever relevant and familiar. Eggers created more detail and context and images that hold to a time at some moments (mostly in the beginning ‘real’ world), yet the spirit of the story still has that timeless, familiar, ever-relevant feel as well.