Generation X's True Believer
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which Dave Eggers calls "a kind of a memoir-y kind of thing," begins before it begins with a copyright page Eggers can't help but fuck with a little bit, interpolating among the legal boilerplate a correction of the usual "This is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental" to include the following: "All characters and incidents and dialogue are real, are not products of the author's imagination, because at the time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for those sorts of things, and could not conceive of making up a story or characters—it felt like driving a car in a clown suit—especially when there was so much to say about his own, true, sorry, and inspirational story, the actual people he had known, and of course the many twists and turns of his own thrilling and complex mind."
He follows this bit of peekaboo irony with some of the best front-matter apparatus I've read since the autobiographical essay that begins Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. There's a "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book" ("Many of you may want to skip much of the middle. . . . Matter of fact, the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with. That gets you to page 109 or so. . . . The book thereafter is kind of uneven."). There's a "Preface to This Edition," which acknowledges the self-referentiality of the enterprise ("Why the scaffolding? See, I like the scaffolding. I like the scaffolding as much as I like the building."). There's an "Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors" (Sun=Mother; Tumor=Portent). But the coup de grce is a 19-page "Acknowledgments" section in which Eggers, instead of the usual profusion of thanks to sis, bud, editor and anyone who's ever poured him a cup of coffee, "acknowledges" that we may be cringing at the fact that a kid this young and underpublished (he's under 30; this is his first book) has written a memoir ("Memoir! C'mon, don't pull that old trick, man!"). He also "wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He, too, has reservations"; "wishes to acknowledge the major themes of this book" (among them, "The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance," "Brotherly Love/Weird Symbiosis Factor," and "The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious Book Aspect"); and, finally, "wishes to acknowledge your desire to get started with the plot, the body of the book, the story."
For good measure, he throws in a record of how he spent his $100,000 advance, a promise that the first 200 people who "write with proof that they have read and absorbed the many lessons herein" will get a check for 5 bucks from the author (an address is provided) and—beats me—a drawing of a stapler.
We then move into "the plot, the body of the book, the story," the part that gets us to page 109, and this is where Eggers switches registers from "staggering" ironic wit to "heartbreaking" narrator of a painful domestic tragedy. It turns out that the reason Eggers has had "no imagination" for fiction is because when he was 22 years old, both his parents died of cancer within 32 days of each other, leaving Eggers in charge of his little brother Toph. Though elsewhere as pyrotechnical as any late-model postmodernist, Eggers writes an earnest, moving, unsentimentalized, unpostmodern narrative of his parents' death and his subsequent move—with Toph and his sister Beth—from Chicago to Berkeley. Eggers writes, for instance, of holding his dying mother's bleeding nose for hours (her blood wouldn't clot) as they watched TV in the dark while Toph, playing long bouts of Nintendo to avoid all the trauma, would periodically come in to meekly ask for something to eat. In this section, Eggers writes with the desperate factual specificity that born writers know to trust when they have no idea how to conceptualize what has happened to them. It's a very impressive hundred pages, and after it's over, you wonder why all that fancy front matter is in there and how he's going to reconcile it with what he's just written.
It turns out this Eggers kid is shrieking with contradictions, and reconciliations won't come easy. Eggers is dealing with grief and an increasing obsession with death, yet he's also feeling liberated, filled with a jumpy joie de vivre that comes from being 22, talented, and freed from the despair of taking care of the dying and the responsibilities of thinking life makes any sense. Thus the next 250 pages, as Eggers kindly warned us, are "kind of uneven." His descriptions of living with Toph are alternately touching/funny and laborious/okay-that's-enough-descriptions-of-Frisbee-playing. His way-too-long account of his editorship of Might magazine—a now-defunct Gen-X mag—is (charmingly, annoyingly) innocent, blithe, youthfully narcissistic and winsome. This slightly annoying charm is partly Eggers' writerly charisma coming across but also an aspect of his slippery irony, a slipperiness that comes across best in a fictionalized transcript Eggers includes of his real-life interview with a producer of MTV's The Real World. Hoping to become a contestant, Eggers lays on thick both his moving history and his unbridled desire to be "rewarded" for his awful past by having MTV "put me on television. Let me share this with millions. I will do it slowly, subtly, tastefully. Everyone must know. I deserve this. I have this coming."
The rhetoric here is both overheated and coolly knowing, exhibitionistic and sublime—like David Foster Wallace on The Jerry Springer Show—and by the time the interviewer asks, "And that will heal you?" and Eggers responds, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!" Eggers attains a kind of little-boy-lost-in-the-TV tone that is brave, scary, vulnerable and deranged all at once. If this isn't enough, Eggers ends the book with an (equally self-conscious) hysterical appeal to merge with the "47 million" (the number of Gen-Xers supposedly out there): "I am one with you," he screams, as if by telling the story of his family tragedy—crucifying himself on the cross of self-exposure—he can exorcise and exonerate himself.
That he tries to burn out his pain by melting into some idea of generational unification is telling and, I think, sad. Harold Rosenberg once wrote, "Belonging to a generation is one of the lowest forms of solidarity," but it's one of the few things that links Eggers to anything larger than himself. He really believes in Generation X, that it has substance beyond the pervasive images offered to us by the target marketers who almost immediately usurped it after the novel Generation X appeared on the scene. (That the tone of Eggers' ironic wit is sometimes very much like a sophisticated marketing pitch points to some dangerous blind spots in Eggers' vision.) But his generation has almost nothing to do with the fact that Eggers' mother and father died on him, not really, and so his appeal to it has an air of unreality in a book that's otherwise sweet and brazen, vulnerable and tough-hearted, everything we love in young American writers.
A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS by DAVE EGGERS; SIMON & SCHUSTER. 375 PAGES, hardcover; $24.
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