How the Water Feels
    by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 1976–78)
    Southern Methodist University Press
    October, 2002
    266 pages

    Reviewed by Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 1988–90)

    I have high hopes for an author who can write a sentence like this: “In the afternoon, the heat soaked into his pores and pressed for hours like a hand, a woman’s soft, insistent hand, against his skin.” This is beautiful and fresh and lyrical, and when the same author can write imaginative and graceful similes —“ a face as serene and open as a parasol” and “the air was heavy as a paw” — you feel you’re in the presence of the real thing. Here is a writer who knows how to push his writing to the sensual details (“At night the empty streets echoed with shouts — a block away or six blocks away, it was so cavernous you couldn’t really tell — and newsprint scudded across the pavement and blew rattling into your face.”); he knows about dashes and elegant sentences (“He was long-limbed but slight, and despite his layers of clothing — jean jacket, flannel logger shirt, white T-shirt — his hunched way of sitting made him look mushroomy and soft.”); and even rarer, this author knows about the hard truths of character (“I lied because I was ashamed, but more than that: I lied because I saw what I was becoming. I was aimless, slick in a petty way, my spirit seeping out of me in small gasps.”) This is good writing, and the setting for half of the short stories is a Malaysian refugee camp, a setting that appeals to my appetite for culture and exoticism and sorrow around the edges.
         Why amid such promise, then, is Paul Eggers’ collection of short stories, How the Water Feels, such a disappointment? In a word it has to do with unevenness. The same mind that gave us the “parasol” simile also gives us a dozen duds: “he looked as though he had just ponied up a turd”; “. . . a graceful, tiny frame erupting in the middle, as if an epidermic seal had broken and organs surged against his shirt”; “he would have been safe as a Pope buckled up in his Popemobile”; “the pavement was straight and flat as a summer waterway”; “a million thoughts went through Gary’s head, and they all seemed to circle like bees.” The same mind that brought us the lovely “woman’s soft, insistent hand” also gives us such jagged sentences as “I had never touched the thing. It gave me the creeps.”; and “As he gingerly made his way down the steps, burdened with his clanking briefcase, his legs seemed to bow, and he rubbed the fingers of his free hand together vigorously, a sure sign he was still angry with her." In one story he even resorts to fragments for no particular reason: “Then other people stopped, too. Two boys in dirty jeans. A black man in a green suit.”
         I’m focusing on style because what happens to Eggers on a small scale is what happens on a larger one, too. His unevenness in style — at times brilliant, usually ordinary, too often dull and obvious — is matched by the stories. These eight stories in How the Water Feels alternate between a refugee camp in Malaysia and a chess culture near Seattle. One of the stories, “Anything You Want, Please,” is brilliant: a story of depth and surprise and insight, a story in which the main character (a Peace Corps Volunteer who leaves his girlfriend behind in America) is complex and engaging. There is humor and delicacy (“Madeline,” said Reuben. He patted the sides of this cauldron in invitation. “Come simmer with me.”) and there is the recurrence of a single word, “titillation,” to stitch together different parts of the story. These devices, along with artful writing (“They passed piles of rotting foliage in a clearing and, farther back, a circle of shacks on stilts, lit by lanterns.”) and emotions that range from love to savagery, combine to create a story that stayed with me after I was finished.
         Not so with any other story. All of the chess stories are dismal and uninspired, occupied by characters who go nowhere and who speak in ways I’ve never heard humans speak: “I think you’re painting your dick red and calling it a charlie pole”; “I’m calm. That’s the trouble. I let you get away with everything. Do you want me to spank your bottom? I think you do.” The characters live on the fringes and aspire to some kind of chess recognition, but in the end they gain no insight, gain no job, gain no trophies. The storytelling is very poor — no suspense, long digressions at odd points — and the one chance to infuse them with power and irony is missed. That chance comes from juxtaposing these stories next to the horrors of Malaysia, with its Thai pirates who kill and rape, with all the rats, with all the sorrow of Vietnamese refugees eating dirt. To go from there to chess in Tacoma is shocking, and in the hands of a good writer, that shock could’ve been exploited through irony to underscore the narrow and self-serving lives of these chess hobbyists.
         But Eggers is not that caliber of writer, the kind with the instincts of a storyteller and a musician, the kind who, in an observation by Saul Bellow, excels in what he leaves out as much as what he leaves in. One particular story needs mention in this regard. It’s “The Year Five,” a story that is over sixty pages long and fills up one-third of the book. That’s a lot, and you would think that all that ink would be allocated to an exceptional story, especially when it plays to Eggers’ strength: life in Malaysia. In fact I found it dreadful and untruthful, a story that flinches at the harder story in favor of a dull character with a dull agenda. For a while we are invested in the life of the Viet refugee, Trinh, but only partially invested. We are told he wrote poems in margins, but Eggers never provides one of those poems to help us develop Trinh in our minds. When he kills himself after twenty pages, we do care, and we care enough to be astonished that the remaining forty pages drop Trinh almost entirely. Instead we are given a new character, an Indian Sikh, whose agenda is to acquire four signatures that verify some wrong in the refugee camp. I know what Eggers was doing — two types of refugees united in the end — but it’s a stretch, and in the end I wanted to toss the book across the room.
         Why? Because here and all throughout the book Eggers keeps breaking an unspoken contract with his reader. The contract is this: I will give you a chunk of my time in exchange for stories that will move you, entertain you, perhaps change you, amuse you, elevate you. He keeps the contract when he writes lovely sentences — the contract that says the writer will spend a lot of time shaping his words into crystal — but then breaks it with an indulgent story like “The Year Five” that is fifty pages too long. He breaks it when his characters don’t ring true and are one dimensional; he breaks it when a character we care about is dropped from the story; he breaks it when I’m never amused, not once; and he breaks it when he lacks the courage to leap.
         By “courage to leap” I mean that Eggers never ventures very far beyond himself to touch the universal in things that bind all humans together. Eggers, a chess master who worked in a Malaysian refugee camp, writes about chess and a Malaysian refugee camp, and then calls these stories “fiction.” That type of hiding behind “fiction” runs throughout the stories — a hiding, a flinching. I kept feeling that he wrote the wrong and much easier story — why, for example, don’t we get a story on one of those horrific refugee boats — and I kept feeling that this writer, for all his gifts for an occasionally lovely sentence, just doesn’t have that rare gift I want in writers: the gift to drill down deeper and deeper to the secret things. Rilke wrote, “I want to be with those who know secret things, or else be alone,” and that’s why I gave up on Eggers. Just when I thought he was venturing toward the secret — of a man who chooses chess over love, of dreams, of agony — he flinched and opted for the safe and known surface.
         It’s disappointing. Eggers has talent and, in the ways that writing can be taught, can craft a nice sentence. But that’s not enough to sustain me. I never felt Eggers reach deep within me and unite my life with the life of his characters, and even though I love reading about other cultures and other characters far beyond my experience, I was bored with Malaysia and especially bored with Tacoma. With the one exception of “Anything You Want, Please,” every ending was a disappointment, and every story left me unmoved and unchanged. I was happy I had my month-old boy to turn to, whose screams and gurgles contain more truth and insistence than anything to be found in How the Water Feels.

    Jim Toner is an English teacher at Columbia College in California. He is the author of Serendib (University of Georgia Press, 2001), a memoir about his Peace Corps experiences.