23 November, 2008

'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' - Dave Eggers

What does it mean for an author to give their work such an audacious title? Dave Eggers was in no doubt as to the range of responses it could evoke:

Yes, [the title] caught your eye. First you took it at face value, and then picked it up immediately. "This is just the sort of book for which I have been looking!"...But then you thought, Hey, can these two elements work together?...If the book is, indeed heartbreaking, then why spoil the mood with the puffery? Or, if the title is some elaborate joke, then why make an attempt a sentiment? Which is to say nothing of the faux (real? No, you beg, please no) boastfulness of the whole title put together.
Self-awareness - a feeling that rarely deserts a writer, but which is just as rarely allowed to influence a work, even one as personal as a memoir - is never far from the surface in this work. The memoir may run to more than 400 pages, but the title essentially sums up the joke/irony/conundrum in just six words.

The book is heartbreaking due to two specific events in Eggers' past: the deaths of both of his parents, three months apart, from cancer. Eggers and his two older siblings were in their twenties; his younger brother Toph was eight. After his parents' death, Eggers took on guardianship of his younger brother and they, along with his sister Beth, moved from Chicago to San Francisco. This background, ostensibly, validates the book's existence; validates Eggers' entitlement to publishing his memoir.

It's not what the memoir is about, however. Eggers touches only briefly on the emotional outcomes of the two deaths; its effect on Toph is all but invisible. Instead the book comprises the derisive recollections of a twenty-something bloke setting up Might Magazine in west-coast America in the nineties. Not so staggering.

It's honest, that is undeniable. But have you ever had a friend so aware of their faults that self-awareness became their biggest fault of all, and it actually conversely led them to think they could do/think/say anything and get away with it because they were being honest about it? That's how I felt about Eggers. I didn't find his life particularly interesting. I kept reading because I had heard so much about how this book 'redefined its genre': it certainly uses some pithy techniques, but in most cases they are used to present that honesty in some unexpected way, which left me feeling that Eggers wasn't as comfortable with his actions and history as he was trying to make out, and that the innovative writing style was in fact more about trickery than honesty.

The line between the two is both fine and relevant. Not long after moving to SF, Eggers taunts a friend at a bar, telling her that Toph took a gun to school, shot someone, and has been on the run for weeks. He admits it's cruel, but also explains that what has already happened is so unbelievable that people don't know what else is reasonable to believe about his family. That sums up his approach: everything has a genuine basis, but through faked interviews, invented conversations with his brother, mixing up chronologies and imagined thought exchanges he takes that basis and twists it into something much more akin to fiction. Therein lie the book's claims to groundbreaking, genre-bending literature.

Eggers is honest about his feelings (outside of what he feels about his family): discussing the second edition of 'Might Magazine' he says: 'We have to avoid that kind of cruelly ironic fate - that we, the loudmouths who so cloyingly espouse the unshackling of one's ideas about work and life themselves become slaves to something'. It's not only honest, it's also an example of Eggers' ability to finely turn a sentence (except for the change of perspective).

Contrast that with an example of Eggers' at-times-excruciating self-awareness. For several pages he runs an imaginary interview. The interviewer is the producer of reality TV show The Real World, for which Eggers did audition and was interviewed. He takes the 'real' interview and invents questions and his own lengthy, articulate answers to ruminate on many of his life philosophies. At one point he says he pretends to be the kind of person '...who thinks their personality is so strong, their story so interesting, that others must know it and learn from it'. Did he also 'pretend' to write the book that fully matches that description?

Eggers recounts the story of a colleague who falls off a balcony and is seriously injured. While she's in a coma, he has a date with a sexologist and after they return to the sexologist's flat, he goes through a process of convincing himself that his behaviour is OK, despite his friend's situation: 'Shalini would be wanting us all to be enjoying ourselves, even with - especially with a sexologist in from New York...I'll be adding joy to the world, not depriving it'. It's not the thought process I have a problem with, it's the lack of admission of how stunningly self-centred including it in his book is. Eggers has already muddled around with time and chronology in the memoir - we don't even need to know that the events are closely related in time. Did he talk to Shalini about those thoughts after she came out of the coma? Did he think of the fact that his having sex with a sexologist would not have been a key preoccupation for Shalini whether she was conscious or not? But again, there's that honesty: he did think that, so why not include it?

And therein lies part of the book's distinction. It utilises a technique popular in fiction, particularly in hysterical realism, but unusual for this genre: rather than recounting just events, Eggers will include the minutiae of his thought processes - the crazed things one might think when rushing to a friend's house after a call indicating they're about to commit suicide. Surprisingly or not, Eggers has a cavalier attitude to death. He wonders on the way over 'Do I want a dead friend? Maybe I want a dead friend. There could be so many uses...' Most surprising is when 'Might Magazine' convinces a minor celebrity to fake his own death and Eggers explains the idea to his young brother. For the reader, their parents' death is more prescient (it's perhaps three years later in their time) and presenting such a playful attitude to death comes across as especially callous.

His style is very much of his generation. It's rock 'n' roll stuff, with a grunge riff - the book swings along through its chapters, embracing the multi-page paragraph, crazy streams of consciousness and rhetoric, and that style works with the content. But then there's the conclusion, where Eggers castigates the world as motherfuckers who won't listen to him. There are many who would choose not to, but they are not the ones who have done him the honour of reading through 437 pages of biography, to be told he wants us to sleep and never wake up. I'm sure that in the mire of writing this story, of reliving everything that happened, Eggers would have felt insular in a fashion that only an immersed writer can. The world would have seemed a long way away, isolation a far closer companion. I understand him writing and thinking it; I don't understand its eventual inclusion.

For all that, Eggers' commitment to writing and helping others is genuine. He is a founder of 826 Valencia, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping 6-18 year olds develop their writing skills; he also founded McSweeneys, an independent publishing house; and in 2006 published What is the What? (reviewed here), a 'novelised autobiography' of a Sudanese Lost Boy.


  1. I saw Dave Eggers at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, and it was really interesting to hear him talk about the life cycle of AHWOSG. Unusually for a book, it's been edited in many different ways since publication. In the first issue he used all his friends real names and included their addresses and phone numbers but had to drop them as the book (and he) got more and more famous. Also he changed his mind and edited sections of the book on subsequent reprintings, which as a publisher blows my mind. It's so exciting to think there are different versions out there.

    I really liked AHWOSG but it's got nothing on What Is The What, which is one of the most incredible books you may ever read. Check it out if you haven't already.

  2. Hey Lisa. Thanks for the extra info about the book. As I was reading it, I did ask myself a couple of times if I was 'getting it', or if I was being too rigid with my expectations of it (ie of how a book 'should' be written/structured).

    It's a good point you make about the book changing as it and he became more famous, and I think I brought too much background to the book, which altered my expectations; had I read it without knowing much about him and just seen it as a brand-new way of presenting someone's life, I might have had a less subjective response to it. It is intriguing thinking about the book continuing to evolve post-publication with different editions.

    Thanks for the recommendation on WitW, I'm keen to read that now too.

  3. I remember feeling just as conflicted as you about this book. Compelling, yes; want to invite him to dinner, probably; want to spend every day with him, probably not. It is the premium example, though of that maxim of writing (non-attributed because I can't remember who said it!): not to write what, without you, wouldn't have been written, but to write what only you could have written.

  4. Hey Estelle, that's a great quote! And it is prescient to keep that in mind with a book like this: it is merited just in the fact that it's something that only he could write (which doesn't mean one has to like it, but one can still respect his motive). I like your summation of your feelings :)