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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers's memoir of drastic chance (Simon & Schuster, 2000) begins with not one but three articles of apparatus. There is a ‘Preface to This Edition,’ consisting, recklessly, of passages omitted from the text proper. There is a page of ‘Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book.’ There is a long section called ‘Acknowledgments,’ although only the last of its twenty-one pages contains material warranting such a heading. Perhaps the Table of Contents, brief but abounding in whimsy, counts as a forth article. Perhaps even the copyright page counts: it includes, among other weights and measures, the author’s estimate of his placement (3) on a scale of sexual preferences, where 1 is ‘perfectly straight’ and 10 is perfectly otherwise. I wondered about this snippet of disclosure; I wondered why it had been made. Mightn’t we argue that the author’s sexual preference – if he thinks it’s this noteworthy – ought to emerge, gradually and indubitably, from the narration of incident? Are we to find, in the opening pages of tomorrow’s hot novel, photographs of the characters and perhaps even samples of spoken dialogue?

I forget myself. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is not a novel. It’s Based on a True Story. Again the copyright page bristles archly. “This is a work of fiction, only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people… Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real.” Had Groucho Marx taken up the postmodern novel, we could expect no better. And later, in the sea swells of the ‘Acknowledgements’: “The author wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He too has reservations.” The point of all this apparatus is that the author is a wiseacre. Had he begun at the beginning - with his mother losing blood – instead of before the beginning, he might not have found an occasion for introducing himself. If you’re going to crack jokes by a deathbed, you must at least have made it clear to your friends that you crack jokes the way other people breathe.

I do happen to have a reservation about the title. It omits the word ‘catastrophe.’ Catastrophe is what befell Bill, Beth, Dave and Chris Eggers in the early 90s, when both of their parents died of cancer within an unbelievably short space of time. Connoisseurs of disaster might argue whether the parents’ simultaneous death in a plane crash would have been ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ but even quick cancers don’t claim their victims overnight. There is plenty of time for surgery and chemotherapy and hope and denial. By the time they buried their mother, the two middle children, both in their very early twenties, knew how long it can take someone to die. They did what they could to spare their little brother, eight years old, whom I’ve referred to as Chris simply to avoid the need, in a tight space, to explain that his nickname, Toph, is pronounced ‘Tofe.’ I wish I’d known that, when I came across the extract in The New Yorker and sat up straight to read to some of the strongest writing I’ve ever read, for by the time I got to the book I had settled on ‘Tawf,’ which, come to think of it, is way too wet and uncool.

The author is a wiseacre, and his apparatus fooled me into thinking that the author is David Foster Wallace (so to speak), the contributor of a glowing blurb to This Edition. It wasn’t until I re-read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – or most of it, looking for snappy quotes but invariably getting hooked on the story and curling up with it for a fugitive forty minutes – that I saw how limpidly straightforward and, shall we say, unvexed Mr. Eggers’ story is. Allowing for the Groucho-like mischievousness, the book is innocent of the stylistic ‘strategies’ that pull the rug out from under the reader. I make this claim mindful of what Mr. Wallace’s encomium calls ‘metacriticism’ – which I’ll get to later.

A Heartbreaking Account of Staggering Catastrophe how’s that? I suppose it does omit something really important to the author. Another defect is the suggestion that the book includes lots of material that the author actually left out: an account of the catastrophe. In fact the catastrophe is rather like a science-fiction monster, mostly out of sight but capable of surprising and unpleasant appearances. Of course, metonymy is always desirable wherever catastrophe consists of badly-timed but essentially ordinary elements. Both of my parents happened to die of cancer, too – but not within a few weeks of one another, and not when I was eight years old. Nevertheless, we are given but a glimpse of the father’s illness and but an incident in the mother’s. (Anyone in a hurry to know why the author spends considerably more time writing about his mother than he devotes to his father should turn to pp. 201 et seq.) I think that the author might have given us twice as much without taxing our patience. In fact, I think that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius could be four times longer than it is, and I encourage Mr. Eggers, if he can bear to return to this material, to double the length of each of its parts.

With the second chapter, we arrive in California and the second part of the book. Excuse me. The book is already divided into parts, not chapters. There are no chapters in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Just Parts. So if I want to insist upon this four-part analysis that I’ve suggested (note how, getting into the spirit of things, I write ‘this’ for ‘the’), I’ll have to resort to ‘Books,’ in which case for clarity’s sake I’ll have to do a global change, replacing every mention of ‘book’ in these paragraphs with something pretentious, say ‘volume.’ “With the second part, we arrive in California and the second book of this volume.” Second volume of this book? Jeesh. How about:

1. Death (of parents) and Departure (from Illinois and the known world)

2. Dave & Toph: Untidy in Berkeley

3. New Youth Journalism: Contemporary Amplifications of ‘Have You Got Prince Albert in the Can?’

4. Recessional

All the reviews that I’ve read so far agree with the author (see esp. p. vii) that the portion of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comprising Parts VII, VIII, and IX (my 3. above) doesn’t quite fit. There’s nothing particularly heartbreaking about a bunch of kids failing to get rich starting magazine, in this case called Might. The author’s heartbreaking family, moreover, sits this section out, draining the narrative of its bittersweet charm. Upon the brothers’ arrival in California, after all (Parts II, III and IV), Dave establishes a slovenly monument to Unsupervised Guyhood on the one hand (see p. 76 for the menu), while on the other he outdoes the largely feckless parents of Toph’s classmates for Parental Commitment. (No TV, and he throws a silent fit when a mother talks about letting her kids ‘fire up’ joints at home.) The cognitive dissonance of being a young unattached writer and a responsible occupant of the locus parentis provides the author, who like any successful wiseacre knows how to hold your attention, with perfect material. It would indeed be heartbreaking if it weren’t also very funny

So, when Toph more or less drops out of the story, and the author presents himself as a would-be media star who will do anything to raise circulation – ANYTHING – the tone of the book changes. But I’m glad that the author left the Might stuff in. For one thing, the cognitive dissonance recurs in cognate form, as the author struggles with endeavoring to save the world (through journalism) while trying to get laid. Even more aptly, the tale of Might climaxes with a hoax involving – death. The idea behind this hoax is that the falsely announced death of a minor TV star not much older than the author will trigger a bathetic media circus, the sardonic, knowing coverage of which not might but will send twentysomethings clamoring for copies of Might. Interesting as an idea, the scheme’s implementation is a disaster that whisked me back to some youthful telephone pranks that backfired for want of forethought. We find ourselves back in a hospital room, too.

The close reader will note that I have omitted Parts V and VI from my plan. That’s because they’re the frontier in which one becomes the other. In Part V, we’re introduced, for the first time, to the author’s peers, and look what kind of trouble that gets him into. Part VI is the part that I know I will go back and reread often. It takes the form of an interview in which the author applies for a position on the MTV show, The Real World. I am too old to have seen this show, and, besides, I don’t watch TV, either. The author leaves me in no doubt of what it’s like to watch this show. I think that the MTV people missed an opportunity to establish serious literary credentials when they passed on the author’s application; not only would he have emerged later as a celebrated author but he would have made a lot of funny cracks, too. Perhaps Laura Folger, the woman who conducted the interview, didn’t like the author’s facial hair, which wouldn’t be surprising, given what the author says about it.

Now it’s time to address that charge of ‘metacriticism.’ In one of the loveliest moments in all of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Toph drifts out of character in the middle of a bedtime chat with his brother. Since I already knew that Toph was hardly the credulous receptacle for his brother’s wisdom that his brother might, in weaker moments, have wanted him to be, I was well into the shift before puzzlement finally set me to reading with my finger, trying to determine which speaker had which lines. Toph had morphed from a boy to a critic – a not unsympathetic, not entirely masculine critic: the author’s articulate guardian angel. “And best of all,” says Toph to his brother,

for you at least, you finally have the moral authority you’ve craved, and have often exercised, ever since you were very young – you used to go around the playground chastising the other kids for swearing. You didn’t drink alcohol until you were eighteen, never did drugs, because you had to be more pure, had to have something over the other people. And now your moral authority is doubled, tripled. And you use it any way you need to.” 104

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fairly bursts with moral authority, and it is the intense struggle to distinguish right from wrong that makes it far too old-fashioned a book to warrant any criticism involving compounds of ‘meta’ other than ‘metaphor.’ If Toph’s momentary transformation is a device, it is a device drawn from the oldest fables. Similarly, the self-consciousness that the author addresses as an aesthetic problem in his ‘Acknowledgments’ is nothing new, but only the incessant flickering of restless moral consciousness – i.e., conscience. I’m doing the best I can/I could do better; I mean well/Thoughts don't count; As people go, I’m strong/Even considering man's fallen nature, I'm a weakling; I’m good/But not good enough – the book hums with the most ancient tensions, only now, as befits the present stage of human development, thoroughly internalized. When, during the MTV interview, the author is asked whether it’s hard to raise his brother, he tumbles into a confusion that only looks funny:

It’s easy, it’s actually often easier than it would be with a regular roommate, because you can’t tell a regular roommate to sweep the hall, or go get some margarine. So it’s the best of both worlds. We entertain each other. So, no, it’s not  - Oh, but if it needs to be, it can be. It can be hard. Actually yes, it is hard. Very hard. 180

What’s funny here – I’ve taken it out of context – is the author’s self-abasing, pleading ‘Oh, but if it needs to be.’ That is, if MTV wants him to be a martyr, he’ll be a martyr. But he’ll be a martyr anyway. The interview begins as naturally as the conversation with Toph mentioned earlier, and just as gently drifts into metaphor, calling our attention to the change only when not to do so would challenge the reader’s sense of everyday reality. The author uses the interviewer’s voice to announce that the interview is a sham, that the author is exploiting the interview format as ‘Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.’ Of all the forms of journalism, the interview becomes more and more common, and yet it retains an aura of fantasy, for who reads an interview without wondering what it would be like to be interviewed? But it’s a fantasy that leaves a sour aftertaste. The author’s abasement before the agent of MTV reflects his awareness that television infects the casual viewer with airless self-consciousness. Eventually, it’s television that watches the viewer. Some may find the genius of Part VI too subtle to be staggering, but the more I think about it (and reread it), the more staggered I am. “Let me share this,” pleads the author in virtual propria persona at the interview’s wrap-up,

I can do it any way you want, too – I can do it funny, or maudlin, or just straight, uninflected – anything. You tell me. I can do it sad, or inspirational, or angry. It’s all there, all these things at once, so it’s up to you – you choose, you pick. Give me something. Quid pro quo. I promise I will be good. I will be sad and hopeful. I will be the conduit. I will be the beating heart. Please see this! I am the common multiplier for 47 million! I am the perfect amalgam! I was born of both stability and chaos. I have seen nothing and everything.207

Death, or the risk of it, is never distant in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Here we have the author ruining a rare night out with an obsessive fear that Toph’s babysitter will turn out to be a psychotic murderer. There, a young woman who shares office space with the Might staff plunges four storeys when a balcony collapses, and hovers near death for weeks. The author’s old friend John (not, according to the apparatus, his real name) tries to kill himself. A young actress who represents the magazine in New York succumbs to a deadly virus. The deaths with which the memoir opened return as farce in the penultimate book when the author preoccupies himself with what has become of his parents’ ashes, only to make a mess of scattering his mother’s cremains on Lake Michigan. What’s staggering is the vitality with which Dave Eggers remembers. His prose is nothing if not a dance performed to keep life going. He may be superstitiously convinced that he’s somehow contracted AIDS, but of all the emotions in the calendar, the only one missing is despondency.  “What about dignity?” queries the MTV interviewer.

You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of it. It’s never dignified, always brutal. What’s dignified about dying? It’s never dignified. And in obscurity? Offensive. Dignity is an affectation, cute but eccentric, like learning French or collecting scarves. And it’s fleeting and incredibly mercurial. And subjective. So fuck it. 190

This is not the voice of someone in need of Prozac. When the author breaks down, it’s in anger, not melancholy. Parts X and XI both end with angry tirades. The first explodes from disappointment over the poor attendance at his mother’s funeral, and completes the arc of an excoriating prose obsequy. As for the second, I don’t completely understand the corrosive, almost demented fit that brings A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to a close. I can’t think of anything like it except the collapse of Elektra at the end of Strauss’s opera. Somewhat like Elektra, the author worships a younger brother with a more than ordinarily fraternal devotion. The brothers’ seaside games of Frisbee are described with a passion that reminds me of Aschenbach on the Lido in Death in Venice: Toph, like Tadzio, is “blond and perfect.” I remembered that sexual preference scale on the copyright page. The author’s imagination has been staggeringly stretched. (March 2000)

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