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What the wild things are
on November 6, 2009
Maurice Sendak created a picture-book classic with his book "Where The Wild Things Are," about a young boy named Max who frolics with strange beasts. That story is merely the backbone of Dave Eggers' strange fantasy novel "The Wild Things," which tries to flesh out the story of Max and the wild things... but while he does an admirable job expanding individual characters, the plot remains as thin as ever.
Max is sick of the people who surround him (a weary mother, a distant older sister, and assorted friends and neighbors) and still troubled by the divorce that left his family fragmented. So he often acts out -- throwing snowballs, drenching his sister's room, and playing pranks on his mother's dumb-grunt boyfriend. One night he puts on an old pair of wolf pajamas and goes on a rampage through his house, finally biting his mother when she tries to restrain him.
Horrified, he runs out of the house and ends up trying to sail a small boat to the city where his father lives... only to end up on a strange island populated entirely by monstrous wild things. Their only interest is in in having whatever kind of highly-destructive fun they want, and Max soon joyously joins in on their rampaging... having convinced them to crown him their king. But the land of the wild things is not a safe place, and Max soon discovers that "erratic and wild" has its unpleasant side...
The whole idea behind "The Wild Things" is to take Sendak's picture book and resculpt it as a novel. And David Eggers does a pretty good job fleshing it out, using Max's "everyday" life and troubled family to show why this kid would want to join up with the Wild Things. And he writes in a beautiful, slightly surreal style full of strange moments and slightly offbeat perspectives, and manages to make the dreamlike island a more "ordinary" place than the "real" world.
The problem is that Eggers runs out of plot soon after Max floats off to the island. He starts off strong with Max's troublesome behavior and subsequent "running away" to the Island, but after the kid is crowned, he just loses focus of what the story should be. There's no real story after that -- just a patchwork of random, increasingly bizarre anecdotes where Max and the Wild things break houses, set fires, throw rocks, and occasionally play "war" with lava, boulders and land-jellyfish.
Then the Wild Things get annoyed, somebody thinks Max looks yummy, they bicker, he distracts them with a new game, and the whole cycle starts over again. It gets very tedious, until the rather bizarre climax when he ends up in real danger.
Similarly, Max and the Wild Things are handled well at first, but Eggers loses some of his magic later on. Max is convincingly and poignantly painted as an essentially good kid who is lashing out at anyone who annoys him, because of his turmoil over his parents' divorce. Similarly each Wild Thing is given their own personality -- motherly, volatile, arrogant nihilistic, and so on. The main problem is that while Max is convincingly sketched, he doesn't seem to learn anything from his island adventure except that being a wild thing is not so great.
"The Wild Things" is a striking and memorable little novella that stretches the dimensions of Sendak's book, but it's flawed by too little plot and too much "rumpusing." Almost great, but it feels like the story spun out of Eggers' grasp.