The Wild Things

Dave Eggers is like the cool kid at school whom everyone simultaneously hates and wants to be. It is too easy to resent an author who is presented as America's "hottest"; whose literary magazine McSweeney's has attracted a coterie of admirers including Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and Nick Hornby; for whom every week seems to bring another blisteringly hip collaboration, most recently with Sam Mendes on Away We Go, a film scripted by Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, and with Spike Jonze on the big-screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

The disdain for Eggers is not a reasonable or well-adjusted response. It feeds on feelings of bitterness, insecurity and envy. It is also a shame for the author, whose work has - at best - been very much better than cool. True, his Pulitzer-nominated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) provided ammunition for the haters. The book was self-obsessed, but that is understandable in a work focusing on the loss of both the author's parents. Less forgivably, it showcased the kind of too-clever-by-half narrative style - break-out lists of "rules for the enjoyment of this book", spurious drawings of staplers, anticipations of every criticism (including "the painfully, endlessly self-conscious book aspect") - that promptly became a nervous tic for several McSweeney's associates.

Yet one shouldn't hold this against Eggers, because since then a much more interesting writer has emerged. In 2007 he published What Is the What, a novel of huge empathy and urgency. It told the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a real survivor of Sudan's civil war, with whom Eggers had conducted interviews over a period of four years. In this work, the suburban hipster of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius not only removed his eyes from his navel, he imagined himself into the character of a Sudanese refugee without once lapsing into cliché or condescension.

So, what to expect from Eggers's latest venture, The Wild Things? It is an odd proposition. Why would it seem a good idea to rewrite Where the Wild Things Are, a book dear to the hearts of generations of children? Sendak conjured his story in nine sentences; Eggers has expanded that into a short novel, aimed at a readership of "all ages" and drawing loosely on his own script for the forthcoming film. Apparently Sendak himself suggested the novel and one can see why Eggers was tempted. Sadly, however, the realm of the Wild Things proves to be trickier territory for him than Sudan.

Sendak's original is loved by children the world over precisely because Max could have been any naughty boy - or indeed girl. In this novel, however, he is a very particular eight-year-old - one who lives in the detached houses and wide streets of suburban America; in a place that, unsurprisingly, resembles Lake Forest, the home town Eggers describes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Max's sister Claire is nearly 15 and too grown-up to play his favourite game, "wolf and master". His mother is absorbed with work and her new boyfriend, Gary, a creep of a man with "a chin as soft as cake".

Eggers renders the interior world of this young boy with great skill: the impulses that "veered and scattered away from him, hiding in the thicket of his mind", the fantasies of "killing boring things". He makes some acute observations about modern childhood, which is curtailed by fear - Max's neighbours are shocked that he rides his bike alone and without a helmet - and buffeted by barely understood emotions. Yet one wonders, with all his nuanced understanding of a child's mind, whom Eggers imagined he was writing for. Max would never sit through this elegant dissection of family life in the suburbs - he would flick straight to the "wild rumpus".

Things get worse once Max boards a ship and sets sail for the Wild Things' island. The rumpus he finds there is no fun at all - the Wild Things are just as mysteriously miserable as the grown-ups he has left behind. For a start, they have boring adult names: Carol, Judith, Ira, Katherine. After an early orgy of destruction in which they burn their nests, they are assailed by guilt, and spend the rest of the story muttering darkly about "the void" and "the chatter", and sniping at each other or at Max.

The Wild Things has none of the sense of escape, of rebellion and possibility, that is so central to Sendak's original story. All the material Eggers adds leaves no room for magic. It's rather like watching a child take apart a cherished toy to see how it works, only to find he can't put it together again.

The Wild Things
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £14.99

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End