26 July 2018

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

I knew I would buy Dave Eggers' newest book Heroes of the Frontier immediately after reading a review from The Guardian that said: "Eggers paints a fine and sympathetic portrait of a life that is never quite unbearable, but never all that far off." Coupled with the fact that the plot is based around a recently divorced woman who abandons her life in Ohio and runs off to Alaska, I felt this book was in my wheelhouse.

Once I started reading it I was surprised at how slowly I was going through it. I didn't feel compelled to pick it up and sometimes reading it on my lunch break actually just felt like work. I was shocked by my initial gut reaction to this book. It was only after I finished it and started typing up the quotations I saved that I realized how many of them impacted me as a reader. So I guess what I'm saying is that I didn't really enjoy reading this book, but as a whole I think of it as a pretty good piece of fiction.

Obviously I was drawn to this book not just for the divorce, but also because Alaska seems so intangible to me and I wanted to learn more. The first thing that pops into my head when I hear "Alaska" is always the imagery from Sean Penn's movie adaptation of Into the Wild. It looks insanely beautiful and insanely isolated. Eggers describes Alaska as "at once the same country but another country, was almost Russia, was almost oblivion."

A shot of the bus Christopher McCandless lived in from the movie adaptation of Into the Wild .
Eggers did a good job of constantly pushing the beauty of Alaska into his text, in a way that almost jolts the characters out of their misery. Or even better, sometimes they see the beautiful sunset and they stay miserable. Either way, the wilderness has a way of manipulating people, and Eggers definitely makes use of this in his book.

My favourite was when Josie talks about how a sunny day can completely influence her mood, and what kind of trouble it can cause her:

She knew that the colour of the sky affected her moods, the sun changed her outlook and words, and if she took a brisk walk during lunch and saw something beautiful she was liable to say something exuberant, or to be full of happiness for an hour or so, and this was when she made mistakes. In her exuberance she would reveal too much about herself. She would overpraise, she would urge people into tasks they could not complete."

I feel like I related to this 100% ... I have been out for a walk at the nature park so many times, or a nice drive with a nice sunset, and have suddenly felt compelled to text a guy I went on a few dates with ~3 years ago how sorry I am that things didn't work out. Or I'm ready to write up a heart-felt apology for something I may have said to someone when I was 12. When it's +21 outside I decide I'm going to train for a marathon or start a garden. The optimism that pours out of me on a bright, warm day is terrifying, and it too easily impedes my decision making.

AND THAT'S JUST THE SETTING. A lot of this book also deals with what it's like to be a mother. Josie leaves Ohio and drags her two young children (Paul and Anna) to Alaska because of her divorce. She is constantly worrying about how she is raising them and if she can handle it alone. There's a lot of funny stuff in the book about watching your children grow up and how that changes the parent-child dynamic.

The towering tragedy of a single parent is that your eldest child becomes not just confidant but valued counsel."

The relationship between Paul (the older brother) and Anna (the younger sister) is adorable. Paul is a pretty standard older sibling in that he is level headed, rational, and always looking out for his younger sister. Anna is the classic younger sibling: psychotic, hot tempered, prone to fighting.

A lot of the book tackles just how difficult it is to be a parent. How you are always trying to do the right thing for your children, but sometimes your own shitty life gets in the way of that. It's hard to say if Josie is a 'good mom' or not, but she at least is constantly worrying about the ways she could be fucking her children up. It's this kind of theme that I love so much in parenting - being selfless or selfish.

Josie pulls her kids out of elementary school because her life was crumbling and she wanted to escape. She wanted to get away from her shitty relationship, her imploding dentistry practice, and her extreme guilt. Escaping is always something we think could work for us, it's why we always blame the city we're living in for our own unhappiness. If we could just leave we could find a better job, a better apartment, a better boyfriend. My first thought during my horrendous breakup was "I'll move." Josie says it best:

I flew north of your anger. I flew away and felt none of it. I was gone. I am gone."

I don't want to have kids because I'm so selfish and I don't want to put their well-being above mine. So I'm definitely a worse mom than Josie. Again, this book is so interesting because Eggers makes us struggle with what makes a good parent. There's a moment when Josie is drunk and she thinks how worse her life is because she had kids. I think this passage is the best for showing both sides, and how complicated it is to be a mother:

Goddamn them, her terrible robber children, robbing her of so much, giving her everything and robbing her of everything else, her gorgeous perfect thieving children damn them, bless them, she couldn't wait to lie down with them, holding her old cold hands against their hot smooth faces."

This book also has a lot of the comedy that Eggers can be known for in his work. I reviewed The Circle earlier this year (read here) and it worked well as satire. Again, there's some good comedic stuff in Heroes of the Frontier. One of my favourite jokes was when someone tells Josie she should budget for the horrible stuff that happens in our lifetime:

Any given year you should expect certain things. You can expect to see some horrifying act of terror, for example. A new beheading of a man in orange is a shock and will make you want to never leave the house, but not if you have budgeted for it. A new mass shooting in a mall or school can cripple you for a day but not if you've budgeted for it. That's this month's shooting, you can say. And if there isn't a shooting that month, all the better. You've come out ahead of the ledger. You have a surplus. A refund."

I am constantly worrying that because I haven't had anything really seriously bad happen to me that I'm 'owed.' I worry that because I've only suffered through one painful breakup that it's likely I'm due a car crash, a horrible disability, or the death of a loved one. It was refreshing to read a 'lighter' take on this anxiety. That if you just "budget" for it then you'll be mentally prepared.

This idea was also referenced again when Josie talks about death and wonders what would happen to her children if she died:

But the introduction of frailty in a parent - is this so terrible? It should, perhaps, be introduced right away, so the shock is not so great later. We are better when we expect tragedy, calamity, chaos."

My reading spot in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, when I'm there for work
I know this review may read a bit disorganized, but I feel like that kind of represents how I felt while reading the book. When I heard about this book I felt like it was written for me, it had all of my favourite subject matter - divorce, unhappiness, escapism, and the vast, lonely wilderness. And yet as I was reading it I didn't find myself enjoying it.. But now, as I write this review, I feel like I loved the book?

Ugh I don't know. I have struggled with Eggers' fiction in the past, and I guess I continue to. There are so many passages in the book that I've been thinking about for weeks after I finished it, and I guess isn't that all you can ask for from a book? Something that keeps you thinking weeks after finishing it?

1 comment:

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