Monday, 31 March 2014

DAVE EGGERS AND CONNECTICUT: HEARTBREAKING WORK WITH THE LITERARY GPS

There's a phenomenon that affects the way you look at media, which I call Lesson of Individual Knowledge. Specifically, LIK applies when someone writes about something about which you have first-hand, detailed, in-depth knowledge. I learned to apply it when I worked at UPITN, and we became the subject of news reports about the influence of South Africa's Bureau of State Security (BOSS) on our own bosses. Then I read an analysis of it in The Nation, which got so much so wrong I resolved to question as much as possible everything else I read.

I've never warmed to Dave Eggers. Every photo I've seen, or interview I've watched, strikes me as being imbued with a heartbreaking smugness of staggering intensity. This was the case with the photo that accompanied his long-form essay in Saturday's Guardian Review section, in which he travels from New York City to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut to see a Jefferson Starship rivival band. It's a wandering  piece in which Eggers demonstrates a remarkably inclusive sense of ambiguity. For example, at one point he says 'you should know that I love casinos and have loved them since first seeing Reno in 1993'. Which is innocuous enough except that he began the previous paragraph by saying 'I did not know then, and still don't know, much about casinos'. Except that he loves them!

He also doesn't seem to know much about geography, at least Connecticut's geography. This is where LIK comes in, because I happen to come from the great Nutmeg state. Eggers opens the piece describing how he is driving from New York to Mohegan Sun in 'central Connecticut', and in the next graf describes it as being 'in the middle of one of the oldest states in the union'.

Connecticut is the fifth oldest, to be precise, but I wonder how Eggers defines 'central' or 'middle'? Because Mohegan Sun is located in Uncasville, Connecticut. As it happens Uncas was a 17th century Mohegan sachem whose name was borrowed by James Fenimore Cooper for the son of Chingachgook, who was his fictional Last of the Mohicans. Given the amount of space Eggers dedicates to tracing the history of the Mohegans and their relation to the colonists and US government, it's odd Uncasville never even gets a mention. Beyond that, however, LIK was sending up warning flares to me, because if Eggers can't even get the location where he is right, how can you trust him with anything else?

Now, if YOU can't find Uncasville on a map, that's because it's actually part of the town of Montville, so I found a map for you that marks it on its own. Found it? If you looked in the center, or the middle, of the state you didn't. Uncasville is located on the west bank of the Thames River, about 15 miles from the shoreline that marks the state's southern boundary, and maybe 20 from the border with Rhode Island, Connecticut's eastern boundary. In other words, it is in the southeastern corner of the state--nowhere near either the center or the middle.

Indeed, later Eggers talks about his drive from New York 'up I-95 to Central Connecticut.' I can see why a New Yorker would say 'up' I (for Interstate) 95, but if he'd been looking out the window he might have noticed that, in fact, I-95 runs west-east through Connecticut, parallel to the southern coast, and for much of the time the waters of Long Island Sound are easily visible from the road. In other words, it runs along the state's southern border, not heading anywhere near either central Connecticut or the middle of the state. For that you need to turn left onto I-91 in New Haven, and head for, uh, Middletown?

So if Eggers has been staring too long at Saul Steinberg's cartoon of the world beyond Manhattan, or if perhaps he thinks the middle of Connecticut is redolent of middle America, more power to him. After all he is a self-proclaimed genius. He should realise, however, how lucky he is that literary types don't give writers the kind of nicknames sports people get bestowed. Cause his nickname would surely be Ham-and Eggers. If not Hammond, as in the atlas.

1 comment :

Robin Ramsay said...

A hit, a palpable hit. Eggers is unreadable to me - but then my idea of writing is Elmore Leonard and his Road Dogs, as you point out, is a belter.

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