A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers (Simon & Schuster). Cloth, $23.
I'D LIKE TO think that if I met Dave Eggers at a party, I'd punch his face in. The unfortunate truth is I don't have the guts. Although no author in recent memory deserves it more -- for Eggers' smugness in his new meta-memoir A Heartbreaking Work is rivaled only by his egotism, his egotism only by his self-indulgence, and his self-indulgence only by his loathsome jacket photo -- I was brought up to eschew swearwords and avoid conflict. The resulting spinelessness (mine, and that of most of my peers) may well be what saves Eggers from multiple beatings.
And he knows it.
That Eggers has been the co-creator or editor of some of the drollest and trendiest print media startups in recent history, namely the short-lived, smart-aleck magazine Might and the whimsically dry pseudo-journal McSweeney's, is not in dispute. Nor is his Brooklyn boys' club writerly hipness, borne out by witty, back-slapping book-jacket blurbs from fellow hipster scribes David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody -- both of whom, however, manage language with a grace Eggers cannot emulate. Nor is the fact that his magnum opus boasts a kickass title; nor is, finally, the fact that Eggers lived through, as he himself proclaims, an irrefutably tragic and infinitely marketable event in the form of the near-simultaneous cancer deaths of his mother and father when he was 21, providing him with ample fodder for subsequent memoir production.
What is disputable is whether the memoir is a fitting venue for frenzied and public masturbation. Call it Protestant repression, but I prefer a more private place, and would be happiest if others felt the same.
Eggers' nearly 400-page ode to his own greed for glory -- humbly acknowledged as such, of course, on multiple occasions to help the bitter pill go down -- performs a tricky little stylistic sleight-of-hand. The fairly straightforward story is couched within an elaborate meta-narrative framing device which was innovative in 1759, with the publication of Tristram Shandy. Apparently it seems newly minted to ill-read sycophants in New York publishing circles, where Eggers is being lauded as the latest literary empire builder and boy "genius" to hit the stands. This long-winded foreword, which includes a cutesy "Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors," purports to acknowledge the book's weaknesses; and in so doing, conveniently preempts criticism. Thus, through its ironic self-awareness, the book comes complete, like the Starship Enterprise, with its own remote-controlled shield and retractable weapons array.1
The story within the frame is also relentlessly self-conscious: though there are occasional laughs and a few accurate comments on Gen X culture here, primarily the tale remains an indulgent, clumsily structured, and repetitive promotional tool, while evidently serving a secondary purpose as personal catharsis. When Eggers' mother and father died within five weeks of each other, he and his sister were suddenly in loco parentis -- at once orphans themselves and caretakers of their 8-year-old brother "Toph" (short for Christopher). Eggers dwells at length upon the gory physical details of his mother's death, returning to them somewhat gratuitously at unpredictable intervals; and yet of all his siblings, he seems to believe, he is the most devoted -- the only one who tracks down his mother's ashes, who worries about her headstone.2
The least tediously ironic moments are those shared by the brothers, who seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship for which Eggers reserves his only sincere emotion. Reconstituted, or entirely fabricated, dialogues between Dave and Toph -- for this memoir is heavily fictionalized, as the author concedes -- are disturbingly similar to Eggers' own internal monologues, albeit usually wittier. Toph is written as more or less a clone of his brother, speaking in complex, Ph.D.-level sentences at the age of 9 and possessing identical sensibilities. Although it isn't clear whether the brothers are mirror images of each other in real life or merely on the page, Eggers' fascination with Toph reads as an extension of his fascination with himself. The story clearly intends to showcase the author's wild and crazy, yet oh-so-inspired, parenting skills -- braggadocio mitigated, as usual, by a nod and wink in our direction. In fact Eggers' style of parenting approaches the puritanical; he self-righteously (though jokingly, so as not to offend the liberal reader) proposes jail time for a mother he meets who lets her teenager smoke up at home.
The true mystery here is not why Eggers wrote the book -- vanity, money, fame, and free therapy all seem like good reasons -- but why critics all over the country are covering him with adulation, raising him on high and anointing him the latest literary genius.3
1 The reader should take under advisement that there are sour grapes here in abundance: Eggers and the author of this review are published by the same company, but he got paid 10 times more for his tome (and hearsay suggests, to add insult to injury, that he had nothing on paper when he was signed by an editor buddy).
And, because Eggers is a trendy magazine editor and a schmoozer, he has the weight of a huge publicity machine behind him, rocketing his book to the bestseller list inside three weeks. (The author of this review has never written a bestseller.) Thus, this review has ulterior motives. Like Eggers, the author is acknowledging the flaws in her work to induce you-the-reader to trust her and overlook them.
2 Clearly, Eggers-as-narrator is an asshole. And because he has a Y-chromosome, and therefore his arrogance is cute, he can get away with being an asshole. In fact, he's rewarded for it with murmurs of genius. (Isn't it bold, and so charming, when men admit they're not perfect?) The author of this review, on the other hand, has had to work hard for years to become an asshole, and to develop protagonists who are even one-quarter as arrogant as Eggers' narrative persona. Yet, as a female writer, all it generally nets her from book editors is a rejection and a lecture on why her characters should be more likable, heartwarming, and ultimately redeemed.
3 The author of this review has never been called a genius.