‘The Museum of Rain’, a trim little parable about the tension between artists and fans
The Museum of Rain, the short new book from Dave Eggers, will appeal to sophisticated readers as well as those with short attention spans, and that is no slur. It is a parable whose simplicity may leave some thinking this can’t possibly be by the same author as the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and a number of precious, experimental novels, short story collections, screenplays, and nonfiction works. Some might call The Museum of Rain a novella, but at 8,000 words, crammed into 44 pages in a 5 x 7 trim size, it is really a story made available in book form.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
A number of the best-known postmodernist works of fiction can seem, to some readers, to be stubbornly, fiercely resistant to interpretation. Of course—part of the point is to upend, parody, demolish, or transform convention and render useless the common tools of literary exegesis. David Foster Wallace’s great story “Good Old Neon,” a blunt first-person account of Wallace’s upbringing and personal, academic, and professional struggles that begins “My whole life I’ve been a fraud,” may seem accessible until Wallace adopts the narrative voice of a sensitive, suicidal intellectual named Neal and the reader has to go back and revisit every bit of understanding that has begun to sprout in his mind.
These works may be odd, but they do indeed have discernible meanings. It’s just that a lot of readers these days are lazy.
But Eggers, whose novel The Every will come out in the fall, has given us a fresh, brisk little book to tide us over until then. The Museum of Rain is about an aging veteran, Oisín, who provides a break from a big family gathering in rural California by taking a group of kids on a hike to a point far off in the woods where he has assembled the titular “museum.”
Oisín has traveled widely in his life, and the museum consists of jars full of rainwater he collected in places as diverse as San Luis Obispo, Bozeman, London, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires. Most of the story is about the trek through the woods and Oisín’s efforts to keep his young charges in line, prepare them to avoid or fend off snakes and coyotes if necessary, and deal with the awkwardness that some of their questions arouse. (One of the kids wants to know if he died when he got shot back in the war.)
If it is possible to spoil a work so brief, then consider this a mild spoiler alert.
Upon reaching the so-called museum, the troupe sees that strangers have come to the location and made a bit of a shrine, leaving photos, books, and inscriptions honoring the widely traveled veteran who collected rain from points all over the globe and left the jars here. It is charming to see how people have acknowledged the breadth of Oisín’s experience. Even so, one senses the anticlimactic nature of the arrival at the museum, at least for the kids in Oisín’s charge. Of course he knows why the jars are important to him—they are souvenirs of times and places in a long, rich, eventful life—but neither he nor the reader knows why their significance should be self-evident to kids for whom the term “museum” evokes something radically grander and fancier than what they come upon here.
The story may be charming and low-key, but the reader senses, almost from beginning to end, the tension between Oisín’s sense of the museum of rain and its role in his inner life, and the eager but not entirely comprehending manner of the kids he has agreed to take there. If Oisín does not have really serious trouble with the kids he leads on this trek, his adventure may still make you think of the travails of writers presenting their work to an often uncharitable and uncomprehending public. The places Oisín has visited over the course of his life had an effect on him, much like a writer who channels thoughts and impressions into books. Writing books is a bit akin to capturing rain in jars.
Indeed, the collections of rain are like the confluence of wild and bizarre circumstances with which Oisín has met in far-flung places. They are his distilled experience from various times of life. Not unlike literary creations that a writer sends out into the world, hoping for the best and expecting the worst from readers, critics, and, these days, the enforcers of an increasingly nasty cancel culture. The uncertainty of presenting the jars of rain to kids whose critical faculties are far from developed will be familiar to any writer who has engaged in a Q&A where the fundamentally uncommunicable stuff of an intensely private process is the subject of discussion and some of the questions asked are quite beyond belief.
So from a certain point of view, The Museum of Rain is a story about what it means to be a writer. But not, of course, only a writer. Oisín might stand for any creative type who has led or not led a flock of followers interested in but not necessarily comprehending of what the artist has made.
Oisín’s interactions with even the most restless of the kids in his charge are relatively benign. Yet they may still remind you of incidents like Hugh Jackman’s encounter with a crazed fan. Or Bjork’s unspeakable ordeal with a psychotic stalker. Or even the death of John Lennon at the hands of a cowardly maniac who wanted to take a shortcut to fame by shooting a celebrity in the back. Lennon passed a crowd on the way from his limo to the Dakota Hotel, and there may be no better way to describe his assassin than as the unruliest of all the kids amassed to appreciate the gifts of an artist who had channeled so much experience and passion into his songs. The bad kid wanted attention, and got it.
All these analogies are apt, but the artful writing and the sensitive portrayal of Oisín may make you think, first and foremost, of writers. Stephen King made the decision to take his early “Bachman book,” Rage, out of the hands of members of his flock after some misinterpreted it to the point of carrying out school shootings.
Eggers has crafted a sly metaphor for the inherently awkward and frayed relationship between the creators and the receivers of art. Unless of course The Museum of Rain has another meaning entirely. An admiring critic, in the end, is only one of the better-behaved kids on the outing.