Our consumption of books teaches us to think about them in neat categories. ‘Fiction’ is in one aisle. ‘Poetry’ in another. ‘Biographies’ and ‘Memoirs’ in another. We like to know what sort of reading experience we’re going to get. So there is something so disarming and refreshing to encounter a book like Will Eaves’ “The Inevitable Gift Shop” which so resolutely denies any kind of categorization. Much of this book feels deeply personal, but it is not confessional in the sense we’ve learned to expect from writers who shape and lay out their lives in a memoir. Rather, it’s a mixture of autobiographical anecdotes, poetry, micro-narratives, literary criticism and philosophical musings. In grouping these styles of writing within distinct sections, the book takes on a remarkable fluidity where different parts comment upon each other and a deeper, more complex understanding of a whole life is imaginatively constructed. In some peculiar way, I finished reading it feeling I knew everything about Will Eaves and nothing about him.
I had to take my time reading “The Inevitable Gift Shop” because it switches between forms of writing so quickly. The book gives an uncommon way of reading which I gradually grew accustomed to and eventually found enthralling. It’s also the kind of writing that arrests you and makes you slow down to appreciate the tightly compressed ideas as well as the associations Eaves forms between different sections. For instance, there is a poem called ‘The Crossings’ about a journey and a return which seems to play upon the earlier commentary about the nature of change in characters. One poem about a shooting game might refer back to an account of visiting a Fair with other boys. And another poem muses upon the nature of dark matter and our knowledge of the universe. This can usefully be connected to an account of how St Augustine and Luther’s thoughts about the emptiness in matter differed – despite their opinions predating scientific findings about how matter is mostly made of empty space at a subatomic level.
Eaves expresses a suspicion towards critics of literature in different sections surmising that their judgements have more to do with their desire for authority and expressing their own egos. He emphasizes that it is “a common difficulty with heavily underlined opinion. We read or hear what the critics would have us believe. We do not necessarily know what they think.” Naturally this makes me anxious and highly self-conscious writing out my response to this book. Part of the wonderful experience of writing a blog rather than formalized reviews for mainstream publications is that my opinions are admittedly personal and subjective, but I wonder to what degree I’m seeking to simply validate my own point of view. The author raises questions about how we read. He also challenges you to wonder whether his assertions about how poetry should be read ought to be applied when reading his own poems. He made me question if his rigorous engagement with the wide variety of authors and books he references were meant to be taken as truth or a reflection of his own desire to be seen as an authority. This makes reading this book a usefully perplexing experience. I found it invigorating how it calls into question a reader’s complacency and offers different ways of engaging with literature.
I’m making this book sound quite severe and dry, but there is a lot of intentional humour here too - which suggests perhaps Eaves doesn’t expect us to take any of these ideas too seriously because they are, after all, just ideas. The semi-comic poem ‘The Lord is Listenin’ to Ya, Hallelujah’ is suffused with the sound of a trombone and suggests adopting a freeing Fellini-esque attitude “Live as though you were already dead and free to wander the brazen rooms of this honking solo”. A story about buying tortoises to teach a niece and nephew about death has hilariously cruel inadvertent consequences. In another section there is a wry observation about a bandaged manikin viewed in a window that looks like something out of Rocky Horror. One of the funniest sections is ‘A Likely Story’ which is a sort of interactive exercise in assessing your priorities, but the available options contain lots of deadpan humour about states of alienation in society. It’s pleasing that there are these injections of light hearted humour alongside some of the more serious points and considerations made throughout the book.
There are a few surprisingly candid references scattered throughout this book. For instance, a description of withdrawing from his mother because of her attitude towards homosexuality is paired with an account of her becoming socially withdrawn in school because of her accent. Sometimes it can feel like personal details are given in a teasing way. So the inflammatory declaration “I don’t miss you yet, because you’re still in the car” stands alone and is sandwiched between thoughts about the nature of voice and a consideration of point of view in “Madame Bovary”. Is Eaves reluctant to confess what’s really happening or should this slight detail be sufficient to convey the totality of a tumultuous relationship? It's worth noting that much of this book is poetry and some of the best poems feel as personal and moving as Mark Doty’s writing. So perhaps the author can be located here as much as in the narrative sections. Then again, all the literary criticism could be taken to reflect the author's inner life as well. If Ralph Waldo Emerson said "A man is what he thinks about all daylong" it could also be said that a man is what he reads all day long. Certainly, my intense involvement with what I'm reading feels like something extremely personal and intimate to me.
The title is a reference to a guide’s remark of a tourist site in Iceland that there is an inevitable gift shop. For me, this image took on significance throughout suggesting that parts of our lives are parcelled up and offered up, but they serve only as imitations of the real thing. There isn’t any one account that can authentically convey a life. Perhaps our desire to know someone else by delving into their memoir looking for intimate details makes us little more than tourists. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing as long as we don’t confuse the representation of an experience with the real thing. I found this an absolutely fascinating, cerebral and original book that raised so many questions for me – not just about the content of what I was reading but how I was reading it.