A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , by Dave Eggers. Simon & Schuster, 375 pages, $23.
I know it’s insensitive to mention it, maybe even obscene, but the Brooklyn-based literary magazine McSweeney’s reminds me of Egypt Air Flight 990. Why exactly? Because McSweeney’s raises expectations skyward just to dash them in the sea, and the longer one stays aboard, the clearer it becomes that something spooky is happening in the cockpit.
Dave Eggers, editor and mad pilot of the most brilliant, maddening literary magazine in English, is a certain kind of genius, and readers of his brainchild are spared nothing by the flexing of his talent, from the small print that opens every issue with absurdly specific notes and guidelines (“We refuse to capitalize champagne”), to original line drawings for every contribution, to insane diagrams and other structural features that almost–but not quite–make up for the fact that we are often reading the minor experiments of major scenesters. The clear standouts from the magazine’s first three issues (No. 4 is imminent) have been Sean Wilsey’s extensive piece on Marfa, Tex., a series of photographic “convergences” by Lawrence Weschler, and an “exposé” called “No Justice, No Foul,” which offers the inside dope on how the Supreme Court has based its decisions on hard-fought basketball games since 1923. As far as the small print goes, a recent contributor’s note (“David Foster Wallace lives in Illinois. This is his first published work”) is a valuable rebuke in shorthand to those who believe that irony has outlived its usefulness.
Loyal customers of the McSweeney’s franchise already know that Mr. Eggers has some “issues” and, for reasons that seem all the more unsatisfying for being dramatized, joked about, pronounced, denounced, retracted, lamented, reintroduced and otherwise toyed with for nearly 400 pages, he has chosen to confront his demons in the most indulgent literary form of all (and one for which the author, strangely, seems to harbor a healthy contempt): a memoir of trauma and recovery. The end result is called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , and the cover, from a painting by the Russian kitsch artists Komar and Melamid of a velvet curtain opening on a pastel sunset, serves as a perfectly calibrated invitation to the brain-bending mixture of inventive talent and utter carelessness that lies ahead.
The trauma Mr. Eggers describes in his memoir is the nearly simultaneous deaths of both his parents from cancer, leaving the author orphaned at age 21 and largely responsible for raising his 8-year-old brother, Toph. “His brain is my laboratory,” boasts Mr. Eggers in the nervy present tense of an Esquire feature, “my depository. Into it I can stuff the books I choose, the television shows, the movies, my opinion about elected officials, historical events, neighbors, passersby.… He is a lucky, lucky boy!” The lack of sentimentality here is appreciated, and the subject of his brother, for whom Mr. Eggers has an obvious affection, raises the level of his prose beyond the constraints of his chosen idiom. “The mornings are filmstrip white,” Mr. Eggers writes about their first summer as orphans, having left Chicago for a new life in the Berkeley, Calif., hills, “and we eat breakfast on the deck, and later we eat lunch there, we eat dinner there, we read there, play cards, always with the whole thing, the postcard tableau … too much view to seem real, but then again, nothing really is all that real anymore, we must remember, of course, of course.” The Eggers brothers are portrayed as an inseparable duo, a kind of father-and-son comedy team, and the book’s descriptions of their unusual domestic habits are both hilarious (a menu of their bachelor dinners includes a dish called “The Saucy Beefeater”) and, dare I say it, loving. Would that Mr. Eggers’ nimble imagination always settled on such rich and vital material.
Before coming to New York and starting McSweeney’s , Mr. Eggers was a co-founder of Might , the short-lived and influential magazine from San Francisco that first captured the ‘zine esthetic and brought it to the mainstream. Might was conceived of, produced by and marketed for people in their 20’s, and as Mr. Eggers describes it in his memoir, provided a beacon for recent postgraduates in search of a mission. “Screw Those Idiots” was Might ‘s first advertising slogan, and they did, or at least they tried to. We meet the whole crew: Moodie the graphic designer, Marny the workhorse, Paul the idea man, Debra the comely photographer, Judd the mediocre cartoonist, June the “black friend” and a wacky errand boy named Zev. On the dark side, there’s Shalini, who falls into a coma, and John, who attempts suicide, and Mr. Eggers’ realization that Adam Rich, child star of Eight Is Enough and the subject of Might ‘s most famous article, an elaborate death hoax, is merely “milking his own past to solicit sympathy.”
True, Mr. Eggers does warn readers in his “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book” that the middle section of his memoir concerns the lives of people in their 20’s, a subject that is “very difficult to make interesting,” and suggests that after page 109 “or so,” his book is “kind of uneven.” But this disclaimer would be specious at best for any writer, let alone one as capable as Mr. Eggers; readers are, in general, a generous bunch, and in return for our freely given attention all we ask is that our trust be valued and returned. Better than attaching a clever disclaimer to his self-indulgence, better than claiming not to have the “energy” or “skill” to transcend the “gimmickry inherent in all this,” Mr. Eggers should have stopped himself when he lifted his hands from the keyboard and realized–surely he did–that he was writing a book about trying to get laid while raising his little brother, trying to get laid while starting a magazine, trying to get laid while auditioning for a part on MTV’s The Real World , and so on. Plain good writing can make up for a variety of temperamental sins, but Mr. Eggers, for all of his creative energy, has a lot to learn about making narrative.
During one of the many extended rationalizations for his memoir, Mr. Eggers relates the story of singing along to his favorite album in his bedroom late one night and feeling “deeply embarrassed” when he stumbles over the lyrics. This awareness of a phantom audience is presented as a generational problem, the logical result of being raised in the suburbs and exposed to a media-saturated society; later on, he compares himself to a snake who sloughs off his skin to grow, leaving behind the details of his life “for anyone to see.” Privacy, the writer claims, is “cheap, overabundant, easily gotten,” and dignity is “an affectation, cute but eccentric, like learning French or collecting scarves.… So fuck it.” And what about those who would accuse him of exploiting his past for personal gain? “If you don’t want anyone to know about your existence,” Mr. Eggers writes, “you might as well kill yourself. You’re taking up space, air.” In a lengthy memoir filled with incidents of dubious importance to anyone but the author and his friends, this statement, no matter how exaggerated, has the ring of actual belief.
It would be hard to invent a deeper misunderstanding of what it means to live and breathe, let alone what it means to commit words to a page, wrestle with their order and entrust them to a reader for interpretation and, one hopes, some level of conspiracy. And if this misconception is widely held by the shallow and encouraged by the marketplace, all the more reason to resist the facile urge, to resist the lure of what comes most easily. Mr. Eggers has ideas to spare, talent in abundance and the courage to flaunt the conventions of narrative–but only when it suits his low-flying ambitions.
Watch out below! his book warns us, and I’ve been checking the sky for falling objects ever since I put it aside. Leave it to the editor of McSweeney’s , on his first long-distance flight, to commandeer the controls for a strange, extended dive and take the rest of us down with him.