Given Dave Eggers' background in writing, editing, curating, and publishing short fiction and metafiction, it's not surprising that short stories would turn out to be his best fiction milieu. It's only surprising that it's taken him this long to publish his own short-fiction anthology. How We Are Hungry follows Eggers' various McSweeney's compilations and several volumes of the Best American Nonrequired Reading books he edits, but it's his first solo anthology, and it showcases a generally serious writer with a morsel of whimsy mixed into a lot of melancholy. Nearly half of How We Are Hungry's 15 stories are two-page intervals between longer works, but between those palate-cleansing character sketches and the performance-art silence of "There Are Some Things He Should Keep To Himself" (which consists of five blank pages), Eggers lays out a series of narratives about forlorn but determined people who sometimes seem to persist for no other reason than because life carries them forward.
In spite of his generally grave subject matter, Eggers is rarely bound by conventional style; his animate and inanimate objects share perfect equality, and bizarrely unregulated metaphors abound. In the slow, incisive portrait "The Only Meaning Of The Oil-Wet Water," animals converse with their shadows, landscape features talk to each other, and the protagonist's tired arm muscles are described as "aching, shuffling their feet, children in museums." In "Quiet," as a needy man pries into a friend's sexual history, he characterizes the information as an unruly guest he's inviting to take up permanent residence in his mind: "He would defecate on my bed. He would shred my clothes, light fires on the walls. I could see him walking up the driveway and I stood at the door, knowing that I'd be a fool to bring him inside. But still I opened the door."
The conceptual stretches can be daring to the point of seeming nonsensical. But then, Eggers is most compelling when he's darting out on a stylistic limb, as he does with the hilariously hyperbolic "Your Mother And I," a breezy, charming fantasy about two people improving the world. ("Anyway, we were on a roll, so we got rid of genocide…") Similarly, "After I Was Thrown In The River And Before I Drowned" fills a dog's unpredictably inhuman point of view with the intensity of a life lived without regrets, leading to an energetic story written without restraint.
That lack of regret is otherwise rare among Eggers' lonely, anomie-filled characters, but the unlimited experimentation suffuses How We Are Hungry's sly sketches, making most of them into minor, colorful revelations. In his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, Eggers struggled to find a functional format that would carry a full-length story. In his short work, he plays with format and content alike, and the results are as remarkable as they are intrepid.