I read the book version of Where the Wild Things Are before I saw the film this weekend. I don't just mean that I read Maurice Sendak's picture book: I stayed up late reading Dave Eggers's "all-ages" novel, The Wild Things (McSweeney's). The novel tells us a good deal about how Eggers makes books into serious play. And serious play reminds us why we need books to have and to hold alongside the "three screens" (computer, PDA, TV) tech folks talk about, and to which we'd add, on this occasion, the fourth, the screen of the movie theater.
Why bother with the novel? The most moving moment in it, for me, comes early on when Eggers writes that "Max no longer had a sister." This is after Max's sister fails to comfort him, and renounce her friends, after they smash his snow fort. Coming from Eggers, Max's response to childhood betrayal rings with a cataclysmic truth about the play of siblings: when it fails, loss can be total. Eggers lost his sister to suicide, and that was after a public falling-out over Eggers's first, autobiographical, novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Reading this line, I could feel that the novel had a life of its own, particular to Eggers as the teller of the story, and that held true throughout.
Though the novel is uneven, its pacing awkward as it brushes up against the film, its issues sometimes forced (the critique of McMansions, for example, is not relevant to the novel's emotional core), it is still worth reading. Novel, film and picture book together represent the serious play that imaginative literature can be. Storytelling -- in words, pictures, film -- is a flexible art in which compelling stories (all our most ancient ones) produce unlimited creative responses that can enchant us, can move or madden us, heal or worry a wound.
Eggers's publishing house, McSweeney's, is making the most creative mass-market books out there -- I am speaking of the object, now. The Wild Things has a lovely hard cover, with Max's silhouette, or you can order the fur-covered edition -- fuzzy, with Max's eyes peering out, no title necessary. The book is the wild Max. This is another kind of play: beautifully-made books recruit all our senses to the reading experience. Eggers's genius as a publisher and book designer is not to forget that we still have bodies as we read.
McSweeney's books are worth reading; I am not saying they are perfect. McSweeney's writers are criticized for what seems like their perpetual adolescence -- their taste for sarcasm, silliness, narcissism, and light-weight subjects. The Latke that Couldn't Stop Screaming, anyone? Latke is a gorgeous book, though, physically, like Wild Things (Lemony Snicket is the author, clearly at play). What is important is the human, artistic inventiveness of these books. This is why it is worth having, and holding, and reading, The Wild Things, and seeing the film -- also beautiful -- no matter the flaws of each, whatever we may take those to be. Serious play is not, and should not be, perfect.