I’ve been reading Dave Eggers’ collection of short fiction entitled How We Are Hungry and found myself underlining passages throughout. They seem important, as if I will return to them again at some point. So, I thought I would jot them here, using this post as a kind of commonplace book. So much of the work resonates with me–from the quiet desperation of the characters, to the honest and unflinching use of language, to the larger theme that binds the collection together. I savored this collection and found myself reading it slowly and deliberately, chewing each morsel a hundred times before swallowing. I could wax philosophical at length over much of the work, but for this post I want to focus on one story–“The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water.”

The story centers on a woman by the name of Pilar who one day flies to Costa Rica to meet her longtime friend, Hand. Told from third person limited point of view, we experience the narrative filtered through Pilar’s psyche and spend much of the time lingering in her thoughts about her relationship with Hand, about life and its invented meanings.

The conflict in the story is an internal one–between Pilar, her disires, the person she is and the person she wants to be. We see such conflict eking out in the following passage.

She counted the reasons she should sleep with Hand: because she was curious about sleeping with him, curious to see him naked; because she loved him; because sleeping with him would be a natural and good extension of her filial love for him; because there existed the possibility that it would be so good that they would change their ideas of each and then think of themselves as a pair; because to deny one’s curiosity about things like this was small and timid, and she was neither and didn’t ever want to be either; because he had really wonderful arms, triceps that made her jangly in her ribs and tightened her chest; because she was not very attracted to him when away from him–she’d never thought of him while in the tub or flat on her bed–but in his presence she didn’t want to walk to eat, she wanted to be nude with him, under a dirty sheet in a borrowed house. She wanted to hold his shoulders; she wanted to go snowshoeing with him; she wanted to go to funerals with him; she wanted him to be the father of her children, and also her own father, and brother; she wanted all this while also to be free; she wanted to sleep with other men and come home to tell Hand about them. She wanted to live one life with Hand while living three others concurrently. (32)

Pilar wrestles between the forces of what she wants and that which she feels is possible or expected of her–what is socially proper. She wants these things, and in fact she could likely have them if both her and Hand chose not to complicate it. But how often do we see human relationships that are not complicated. It’s as if we are predisposed to making things messier than they need to be. Why is that? Is it that we struggle between our baser instincts and our rationale minds, which have the potential of overriding such instincts? Is it personal, religious, or cultural ideology? Is the friction of social norms and expectations rubbing against our own hope to find happiness? What are we so afraid of?

As readers, we are privy to Pilar’s internal struggle. As she analyzes the possible impact of what she chooses or fails to choose, she concludes, “How many times in life can we make decisions that are important but will not hurt anyone? Are we obligated–maybe we are–to say yes to any choice when no one will be hurt?” (50). This line had me thinking for days. I believe so many of us are programmed to be unhappy or to create unhappiness in others (which is the same thing). The notion of our interconnectedness is a compelling one. Certainly, our actions affect others. One gentle tug on the web of life radiates in many directions and is felt in distant places by distant people. This is true. However, what if we were faced with a decision–with an action–that was really important, but would do no harm to self or others? Truly how often do we face such a choice? When we do, are we compelled to say yes–if for no other reason by virtue of the scarcity of such an opportunity?

“Sex invented God,” Pilar observes scrawled on a bathroom wall (44). What do we do to avoid happiness? Having survived 12 years of Catholic education, I should be an expert in answering that question. God–certain versions anyway–and the institutions built around the notion work as tools of control, often undermining the pure happiness that life offers us if we simply say yes. Floating free out in the surf, Pilar considers this question of God and happiness and the meaning of it all.

She closed her eyes. Opened them, closed them. She could end this world or allow it. This was a moment when a believer, a thoughtful believer, would think of God’s work, and how good it was. The waves were perfect to the right and perfect to the left… For a while she was enchanted by those who proposed that God was in nature, was all around us, was the accumulated natural world. “God,” they would suggest, “is in all living things. God is beauty, God is in the long grass and the foam finishing a waterfall.” That sort of thing. She liked that idea, God being in things that she could see, because she liked seeing things and wanted to believe in these things that she loved looking at–loved the notion that it was all here and easily observable, with one’s eyes being in some way the clergy, the connection between God and–

This reminds me of the scene from the Oscar winning film by Sam Mendes American Beauty (1999) where Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful thing he’s ever filmed, and he is overwhelmed.

Sitting there in the dark with Jane, watching a plastic bag dance in the wind, Ricky confesses, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.”

But a single contained God implied or insisted upon a hierarchy that she didn’t accept. God gave way to a system of extremes, and implied choices, and choices required separations, divisions, subtle condemnations. She was not ready to choose one God, so there would not be this sort of god in Pilar’s world, and thus the transcendental deity–

But then why God at all? The oil-wet water was not God. It was not the least bit spiritual. It was oil-wet water, and it felt perfect when Pilar put her hand into it, and it kissed her palm again and again, would never stop kissing her palm and why wasn’t that enough? (51-52)

We all hunger for something–love, freedom, pleasure–but so many of us have gotten into the habit of starving ourselves. There is so much beauty. Often it is simple. Right before us. It’s of no greater meaning or complication and it’s as fleeting as life. It’s time to eat and love and overflow; faced with happiness and beauty without harm to self or others, we are obligated to say yes.