Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Reviewed by John Bedell

In keeping with our habit of lagging at least a year behind the trend-setters, we only now get around to reviewing one of last year's hottest books.  You can get an idea of the tone of this weird memoir from the inside back cover, which features a picture of the author with a cute golden retriever and says,

Dave Eggers, a founding editor of Might magazine and contributor to many periodicals, is now the editor of McSweeney's, a quarterly journal.  He lives in Brooklyn with his brother.  This is not their dog.
The brother, Toph, is in a sense the pretext for the whole exercise. The book begins with the death of Dave and Toph's parents within a month of each other from unrelated cancers.  Dave, then 21, and his 23-year-old sister become the guardians of their little brother, who was then 8.  The relationship between the brothers becomes the thread around which Dave spins a discursive sort of story/essay/rant/writing experiment about three years in his life, all told in a highly self-conscious conversational twenty-something voice, punctuated by frequent "post-modern" moments in which a character will turn to the author and say, "Dave, that's a mediocre metaphor" or complain about being misquoted.  It sounds awful, but it isn't.  Well, parts of it are pretty awful, but they are redeemed by parts that are brilliantly witty, emotionally wrenching, and genuinely insightful.  I was left with the feeling that this experiment was a true success, that it conveyed much better than a conventional novel or narrative memoir could the strange experience of being Dave Eggers, orphan, brother,  parent, and ambitious young man.

I have always had difficulty with the "realistic" novel as a form, because most novels just don't come very close to the way life feels to me.  There are, first of all, various falsifying conventions that novelists are supposed to follow, like that characters are supposed to change when, so far as I can see, nobody ever really changes at all, or that characters are supposed to "resolve" their issues, when I have never resolved any problem that ever really bothered me.  Even honest novelists run up against the simple fact that no narrative structure can really convey the random, barely coherent pattern human experience, the way all serious thoughts are undermined by silly or lustful ones even as we think them, all comedy interspersed with brooding about death.  Somehow Dave Eggers' style, for all its artifice, rang very true to me.  It is a cowardly surrender when a writer, instead of thinking up a way to improve a weak metaphor, has a character point out that it is weak, but it also has a feeling of reality that polished prose lacks.  Here Dave visits a suicidal friend tied to a bed in a mental hospital:

I put my hand on his shoulder.  I can't believe he's going to make me give him the speech.  I am livid that he's going to make me give him the speech.  I do it, piecing it together from times I've seen it done on TV and in movies.  I tell him that there are many people who love him and would be crushed if he were to kill himself, while wondering, distantly, if that is the truth.  I tell him that he has so much potential, that he has so many things to do, while most of me believes that he will never put his body and brain to much use at all.  I tell him that we all have dark periods, while becoming ever more angry at him, the theatrics, the self-pity, all this, when he has everything....
But when Dave tries to tell the friend how boring his theatrics are, the friend says "so leave it out," and Dave can only reply, "It's not that boring."  Friend:  "You're sick."

Dave doesn't even try to make himself seem like a particularly nice person, and in one section he shows how his ambivalence about his relationship with his brother turns him into a complete jerk.  On the one hand, he tries to be Toph's buddy and to live out the fantasy of parentless boyhood--everything a mess, no healthy meals, apartments chosen because they had good hallways for sliding down in your socks.  On the other hand, he feels responsible and resents even the friendliest attempts to help or offer advice:

     "Are you telling me what to--"
     "No, I just think that--"
     "See, that's just such bullshit, that you think you have a say in something like that, just because I'm young.  I mean, you would never contradict some forty-year-old mother, would you?"
     "Well, don't.  Because I am a forty-year-old mother.  As far as you and everyone else is concerned I am a forty-year-old mother.  Don't ever forget that."
The central 150 or so pages of the book chronicle Dave's life as an ambitious twenty-something working in the coolest part of San Francisco, in 1993, surrounded by Internet startups and characters from Real World, trying to launch a new magazine in the same building as the people trying to launch Wired.  My attitude toward cool young city dwellers like Eggers and his friends swings between intense jealousy and bitter scorn--like, I think, that of many other people--and I was impressed at how Eggers manages to convey both that his life was exciting and that much about it was shallow and stupid.  His friends all have vague ideas about change, action, and making a difference or just doing things differently, but they have no substance:
It's like the '60s!  Look!  Look, we say to one another, at the imbalances, the glaring flaws of the world, aghast, amazed.  Look how things are!  Look at how, for instance, there are all these homeless people!  Look at how they have to defecate all over the streets, where we have to walk!  Look at how high rents are!  Look at how the banks charge these hidden fees when you use their ATMs!  And Ticketmaster!  Have you heard about these service charges?  How, if you charge your tickets over the phone, they charge you, like $2 for every goddamn ticket!  Have you heard about this!
It seems to me that while trendy youth sub-cultures from the hippies to the grungers have produced terrific art and ideas worth listening to, they all have at their cores a denial of reality that borders on the silly. "Baby I'll be there to share the land, that they'll be giving away, when we all live together."  Yeah, right.  The young San Francisco of 1993, with its tattoos, nose rings, high-tech anarchism, and cant about the Internet revolution, was as silly as any--and yet here I am, on the Internet, using its real potential for self-expression to review a book by one of that generation's snidest spokesmen.  Is it possible that any truly creative movement has to be founded on a tendency to believe its own nonsensical version of reality?  Or is this just a habit of contemporary youth, along with the belief that grownups are hopeless failures and the experience of the ages is useless schlock?  I was just musing on going back, with some adult wisdom, to my 22-year-old life, wondering if I could find a way into the cool world of my own time.  I doubt it--three words in which all my jealous sense of aging mediocrity and all my pride in my depth and sense ring together.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius begins with the death of Dave and Toph's mother, but at that point all we get is a clinical account of her illness.  His feelings about her gruesome end are all deferred and come up only in the last chapters of the book, when he finds her ashes.  He broods long and angrily on her death in pages that are so raw and hurt they are painful to read.  Here is none of the cleverness that has carried the book this far, none of the ironic double or triple consciousness.  There is only the juxtaposition of the details of life, mostly frisbee throwing, with the horror of her death and the great raw wound it has left in him.  It is ugly, it doesn't make much sense, and as art it didn't do much for me, but it had, again, a moving reality.  I felt his pain.  I also wondered about this pain and the roots of Eggers' persona as a writer:  ironic, engaged, detached, scornful, and playful at the same time.  I imagined him going through his cool young life with his cool friends and his new magazine, immersed in the center of his generation's consciousness, and yet also living alone with his grief and observing everything from the outside.  "In society but not of it" has been the artist's pose for a couple of centuries now, but that hasn't made it any easier to pull off:  most art is still either saturated with convention or isolated in its meaninglessness.  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is neither.  It is familiar but also strange, scornful but also celebratory, irritating but also winning.  As much as I resent the pose of Eggers and other 25-year-old writers determined to overthrow all artistic convention, I couldn't help but like this book.

July 14, 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

No one cares to surrender a part of his freedom, even if it amounts to little more than slackness and muddle.

--Michael Kunze


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A Dance with Dragons


Writing about Magic

Children of Húrin

On the Road

The Magic Endures

Antioch at the BMA

Harry Potter on Film

In a Dark Wood

The Invention of Love


A Heartbreaking Work of
Staggering Genius


The Greenlanders

Modern Art and America

Pritzker Prize

Time to Abolish Art?