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The title is a joke, OK? The author, David Eggers, in the lengthy pre-beginning section of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, tells us outright that the name of the book was "the winner of round-robin sort of title tourney, held outside Phoenix, Arizona, over a long weekend in December 1998." The other titles he mentions as contenders (Old and Black in America, An Astounding Work of Courage and Strength) make less sense and are beside the point. If this book were to have a descriptive title-rather than a mysterious, funny, and let's face it, memorable title-it would be called Self-Consciousness. Because AHWOSG is a memoir. A memoir by a young man in his twenties who spends a lot of time playing Frisbee, saying "Dude," and imagining that he and his friends are somehow doing something noble and earth-shattering by starting yet another magazine about nothing in particular in a condemned space in Berkeley.
The explanation of the title's origins, among an enormous amount of other information Eggers shares before ever getting to chapter one, is apparently meant to disarm us. Every criticism we think of, our young host has thought of first. Before the story even begins, he tells us, for example, the major themes of the book. They include "The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious Book Aspect," "The Knowingness About the Book's Self-Consciousness Aspect" "The Self-Aggrandizement Disguised as Self-Flagellation as Even Higher Art Form Aspect" and on and on.
Does all this acknowledging that he knows what he's up to make what he's up to any less annoying? Well, no.
In his self-consciousness, he invites you to be self-conscious as well. "Oh pshaw-" he says in the midst of the title discussion. "does it even matter now? Hells no. You're here, you're in, we're havin' a party!"
Oh, yeah. We are, aren't we? Many, many people have read and praised this book by now. It just won the Borders Original Voices Award for Nonfiction. It's a national bestseller. So what is it anyway?
The plot of the book, if it has one, is this: Father of four dies of cancer. His wife, a mother of four, dies three weeks later, also of cancer, of a different sort. In other words, coincidence, tragedy, randomness. Third of four children, a college student at the time of the deaths, wonders what on earth to do next. Decides to take care of his little brother and write about himself.
Gimmicks abound. We start off with six "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book." Then we move on to a Preface to this Edition; then a lengthy, stream-of-consciousness Table of Contents; then some Acknowledgments, most of them in mockery of the acknowledgment concept ("The author would like to acknowledge that he does not look good in red"); some charts and graphs; a budget showing how much the author was paid for writing the book and where the money went; instructions on how to turn the book into fiction in case a reader prefers that form to memoir; an "Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors"; and a drawing of a stapler. Only then does the "story" begin. Four hundred and thirty-seven pages later the reader who is still with him is invited to turn the book upside down and read another 48 pages of "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making." Why upside-down? Why not? Does this additional information help one understand or enjoy anything that came before? Not really.
Although the author paints himself as someone genuinely committed to the care of his little brother Toph, who is eight years old when he loses both parents, it seems Toph's admiration for his brother's writing project is not absolute. In a list of epigraphs Eggers decided not to use-which of course means that he did use them all, since you read them all in the preface as you prepare to read his book-is this one, purportedly by Christopher (Toph) Eggers: "Ooh, look at me, I'm Dave, I'm writing a book! With all my thoughts in it! La la la!"
There are times when that seems the most apt description of what the book is all about: (Look at me, I'm Dave!) and yet he has pre-empted our judging him for that, since he brought it up first. (Look at me, I'm Dave and I know what you're thinking! So don't start feeling superior just because you're thinking it!) Just when you can't take it any more, when you start to rebel and think, wait a minute-my life has more depth, more purpose, more urgency than his-you are forced to remember that after all, you are reading his book. It's your decision to spend part of your life thinking about his life. Why are you doing it? Because you feel guilty that his parents died of cancer when he was so young? Because you're secretly reveling in not having the same problems he does?
Here's another possibility: you might be reading it because Eggers really can write. Because some of his jokes are very funny, some of his metaphors very apt ("Beth and I . . . lose weeks like buttons, like pencils."), some of his descriptions of ordinary life very, very real. When his mother is on the brink of dying, for example, and he is home from college for the weekend, holding her nose for her because she is too weak to sit up and do it herself and she has too few white blood cells left to enable the leak to clot, he tells you the truth about what he and his mother are doing to get through the night. "On the TV an accountant from Denver is trying to climb up a wall before a bodybuilder named Striker catches him and pulls him off the wall. . . .The accountant flies from the wall (attached by a rope of course) and descends slowly to the floor. It's terrible." No pretense that Eggers and his mother spent their last hours together in philosophical discussions of the universe. Just the raw and tragic absurdity of real life.
Yes, there are moments when one almost feels the title is for real. Moments when the writing is transcendant, when the heartbreak is palpable, when the possibility of a new writer of genius announcing himself is almost believable. . . And then again, there are moments when the book is annoying as hell. Periods during which those annoying moments drag on so long they become tedious eternities, which is also like real life.
Eggers seems to be at his least self-aware when he is telling us about his magazine, Might. From his description, it seems to be a mishmash of adolescent poetry, sophomoric hoaxes, and self-important editorials about hemp. Something less than Spy, in other words, and even Spy is long since over. (Isn't it?) Nevertheless, the author and his contemporaries seem to approach their project with gravity. With the kind of gravity that it took Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the assassination of a president and a few other things combined to instill in their parents. Perhaps the lesson is that these twenty-somethings, the children of the hippies, believe everything they do is of grave importance. They have been invested with the idea of rebellion, the power of youth to transform the world, etc. . . . but nobody mentioned they might have to give anything up in exchange for all that. An excerpt from an interview with a new employee at the magazine: "I saw your notice and I just fucking had to come down. It's about fucking time someone did this." Did what? Started another short-lived magazine? In recent decades, hundreds of magazines have been started and hundreds have folded. So?
But Eggers is a proud member of the Slacker generation. Gen X. MTV. Media is life. One must be observed. "Why do you want to be on The Real World?" asks the screener. "Because I want everyone to witness my youth," replies Eggers. Is this what the book is about? Even as Eggers ironically tries to show us his ironic show of ironic detachment, he gradually admits that he really, really, really wants to be selected to live in a fake house and be followed around by cameras as a member of the cast of MTV's The Real World. Ultimately, though, he gets the bad news: "in the end, they couldn't use more than one suburban white male . . .and he was not to be me." Even for a show about nothing, a show he wishes he didn't want to be on, he is not interesting enough to participate.
Is the very idea of a memoir by a young man in his twenties supposed to be a joke? This is not a retrospective, certainly. He can hardly look back to high school when he's still hanging out with all the same people. Maybe it's a new art-form-the concurrent memoir. ("Here's who I am; here's what I'm doing right now . . . It may not be so interesting but is your life really so much better?")
Does Eggers have talent? Yes. Yes he does. Even if sometimes he is so annoying you wish he didn't, the fact is he does. We will be watching closely to see what happens when he turns that talent toward a worthy subject. The result will no doubt be staggering.
© 2001 Heather Liston. First serial rights Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.