A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

20 July 2011
Chapters 1-5
I don’t know where to start, because Eggers is doing so many things in this first third of the book. He launches into the trajectories of the narrative right from the beginning, so that Chapter 1, focused on a single evening, pops and fizzes in a lot of different directions. There’s only one time-line you can put your finger on – or a finger and thumb, in a vain attempt to staunch the mother’s life-threatening nosebleed. We don’t know it’s life-threatening at first… but then we do, because that’s how things work in Eggers-land. Flashbacks and back stories fill in a family life, and the course of the illness that is soon going to kill this previously strong and capable woman.

Another time-line in Chapter 1, cobbled together from hints and nudges, concerns their father. For most of the chapter we don’t know where he is, although it can’t have been very long ago that he told the family that their mother would not survive. What we get is an image, repeated with more details as the chapter goes on, of him hunched over in the yard. And then he’s in hospital. And, near the end of the chapter, we get the dying mother unable to stand and greet the friends and family members attending his funeral: all along, he’s been dying of cancer too.

What I’m saying, of course, is that the place I called Eggers-land is very carefully constructed. A voice that the author has designed to come across like the immature, self-deluding musings of a typical American 20-something is, in fact, the product of a highly sophisticated writer who knows exactly what he’s doing. Our introduction to this character, as he leaves the bathroom a mess because he simply can – his mother is in no state to check up on him – is designed to wrong-foot us: the incident makes him seem much younger than he turns out to be. Eggers the author needs him to be like this, careless and unprepared for what is to come.

I love this degree of control. It means that when Eggers the narrator lets things spiral away into into one of his fantasy riffs, we’re ok with it; we can see not only why he’s doing it in the intolerable world he’s in now, but we can speculate about why Eggers the author is presenting it to us like this. And, again, it’s no accident that only in the second chapter – or is it late in the first? – is the narrator addressed as ‘Mr Eggers’, and we realise that this might all be autobiographical, that it might have a basis in truth.

Truth. The narrator’s habit of allowing the narrative to phase in and out of some imaginary dimension makes the opening of Chapter 2 seem like another fantasy. And if I sound as though I’ve watched the same endless sci-fi series as Eggers, it isn’t surprising. It feels as though all his references are from American popular culture, so that as they drive along some glamorous-seeming road in California and he imagines a crash into the ocean… he knows they’ll be fine. He and Toph – I realise I haven’t mentioned Toph, or the other siblings for that matter – will be able to relax, with the doors open until just before the moment of impact, and make their exits like professional divers. And a job? Eggers is painting furniture, and who knows how much he’ll be able to make on each item? A thousand bucks a pop? More?

But this isn’t a fantasy within a fantasy. In Chapter 2 they really have moved to California for the summer, and what Eggers has done is chosen the perfect day to describe the almost – i.e. not quite – unbelievable good luck they’ve had in getting a summer sub-let to die for. Not that anybody talks about dying, except when they have to. We don’t hear about their mother’s last moments or funeral, but discover in one of Eggers’ half-embarrassed answers to difficult questions that she died within five weeks of their father. Go figure.

But… even in this movie world of a California summer reality intrudes. In this chapter it’s only the disappointment of the nudist beach: they don’t even bother to go there when they find out how much the entrance fee is, decide it will be rubbish anyway. But by the time we’ve reached Chapter 3 Eggers is showing us that you can take the boy out of Chicago – whichever unsatisfactory bit of Chicago his unsuccessful alcoholic father washes them up in – but you can’t take it out of the boy. (And no, I didn’t know the father was alcoholic. Eggers hasn’t mentioned it before.) He and the nine-year-old Toph – aka, by people outside the family, Chris or Christopher – live in exactly the kind of student squalor that you would expect in their unsatisfactory apartment. But it’s in this chapter that the 22-year-old, unprepared for any of this, begins to learn what de facto parenthood is about. But I’ll come back to that…

…because I need to wind back for a minute to fill in some details. The book was published in 2000, but Eggers is writing about the early 1990s. So he isn’t the callow post-adolescent that he’s imitating although, I suppose, he’s near enough to re-live it plausibly. And we find out in Chapter 4 that he is beginning to write this as it happens – tell you later – so some of this might have been drafted at the time. Might have; I wouldn’t be surprised if 99% of what we read is new material. His mother died in the New Year – but which New Year? 1992? Whatever. He is at home after graduating from art school; his sister Beth, two or three years older, is back for vacations from law school. (If I’ve got the details wrong, it isn’t massively important.) The oldest brother has moved away, and sends money or stuff from time to time. Toph is Toph, born when their mother was 42. I can’t remember if we’re ever told the parents’ names, which is quite right: partially grown 20-somethings don’t think in terms of details like that. Ok.

Reality. The experiment of summer living – the three younger siblings and Eggers’ girlfriend in one big house – nearly kills them, and the brothers live on their own now. It’s the day of the open evening – ‘open house’ in the US, apparently – at Toph’s school, so Eggers can let us in on how his younger self does, or doesn’t, fit the mould of surrogate parent. Sometimes it’s a game, with both of them role-playing stereotypical father/son scenarios from sitcoms or comics. And sometimes it isn’t a game: the older brother frets about how the younger one should dress, what they should eat – usually what Eggers has been comfortable with since he was about ten years old – and how to keep the social security payments coming. And… he presents it to us as if none of it is really a problem. They can keep it light, sure they can. Sure they can.

We know they can’t. As summer turns to autumn and then another winter, it’s not easy. The older brother pines for the life he should be having, resents that Toph only spends one night a week at their sister’s place, wishes he could be as free as other people his age…. There are girlfriends, but it’s hard to meet people and it’s no good if the latest one doesn’t get on with Toph. Again, it’s described with a light touch, and again we know he’s resenting it more than he says when he’s not going off on a riff of hyperbolic violence or romance. When Chapter 5 is devoted to one night out – enough months have gone by for him to have gone against his self-imposed ‘no babysitters’ rule – it’s a disaster.

And all the time as I read I keep coming back to what a writerly book this is. The disaster of a night out ends with Eggers and his not-girlfriend being taunted by passing Mexicans. In the end he calls the cops about his stolen wallet, is taken to see some suspects who aren’t Mexicans – and gets home to discover his wallet. This kind of self-deprecatory anecdote, with its bathetic denouement, is – well, what is it? An unleavened bit of actuality, so silly and inconsequential you couldn’t make it up? Or is it made up? It felt made up to me, the narrator making light of something he doesn’t even mention – because, how could he? – how lonely he is.

And, ok, even if that story is true, the conversation with Toph in Chapter 4 about the writing he’s doing definitely isn’t. Eggers doesn’t even try to make it sound plausible, when he has the brothers stepping outside the narrative in order to comment on it. It’s ok. We know enough about non-fiction novels to understand that they carry a whole raft of difficulties with them about what is and isn’t true – and Eggers glories in them. It’s in this conversation that the word ‘heartbreaking’ is used, in invisible inverted commas, to describe the writing he does at night. And we get it. The title of the book is in the same invisible inverted commas, a self-protecting feature of the comic hype this not-quite grown up goes for. God forbid that anybody should take this stuff seriously – except, of course, plenty of 20-somethings believe there’s a staggering genius inside them somewhere.

22 July
Chapters 6-8
And to think I was talking about Eggers ‘writerly’ style even before this middle third. Chapter 6 takes up about a tenth of the whole book – it’s two or three times longer than the ones that have gone before – and, just after the reader has begun to wonder who he’s trying to fool with the particular ‘interview’ that takes up most of it, Eggers has the participants admitting that they aren’t fooling anyone, are they? It’s a step on from the conversation with Toph in Chapter 4, because this time he sets out for us exactly what he’s doing: yes, this is the author’s technique for filling in a lot more back story. Ok, we’d already realised – I was having exactly the thought some minutes before the narrator comes clean – but having him tell us makes it into an overtly literary conceit. Am I ok with it? Hmm.

The other thing – one other thing, anyway – that becomes clearer in Chapter 6 is Eggers’ satirical intent. Up to now he’s shown us how rubbish he is, but in a self-deprecatory style, mixed with all that towering achievement stuff, both of which are designed to be goofily winning. In fact, Eggers the more adult writer has been hiding from us how bad he used to be – but now he wants us to see how typically American, how typically privileged American he is. In this chapter we get the truth of his ‘upper-middle class’ life – his phrase – in Forest Lake. In case there are readers (like me) who don’t know how exclusive this town is, he has the interviewer spell it out, and has his younger self issue caveats that it was the poorer end of it…. Yeh, sure. This isn’t the ‘unsatisfactory bit of Chicago’ I’d assumed they lived in; Eggers is telling us that this narrator clearly needs to be watched carefully.

The magazine he’s already mentioned in an earlier chapter – Might – is self-indulgent nonsense set up with other rich or nearly rich kids. It’s at the same sort of post-adolescent level as his conversation with the not-girlfriend in Chapter 5, in which they both fantasise about changing the world In a way that seems derived from half-arsed hippie manifestos from the 60s. They pose and pontificate, sink their parents’ money – or Eggers’ insurance money – into the silly project, think that posing nude is a radical statement …. He must have realised how bored we’d get reading about it, so he brings in the conceit of the interview to fill in more details about their lives.

He has people stepping out of the narrative again in Chapter 7. I’ll come back to that, because first there’s some more stuff about the inevitable downward trajectory of the magazine’s fortunes. It’s what I was saying about Eggers wanting to show us the limitations of his younger self, and of all the other younger selves he’s working with. It seems to be presented as an inevitable, rather tiresome stage that privileged Americans have to go through in their 20s: there’s more posing naked, more cool, post-adolescent cynicism in the satirical debunking of easy targets – so that faux-sophisticated satire is mixed with acute self consciousness, an embarrassed awareness of being seen, exposed. (And yes, we’ve already had the obligatory worries about hair, what’s cool to wear, penis-size….)

It’s the attempted suicide of one of his friends that enables Eggers to confirm for us – while mocking the idea, obviously – that he really is describing a whole generation. As he speeds to his friend’s apartment, in his head he’s writing the lines they will say: he knows about these scenes from a hundred tv shows – and even has some of the conversation set out as a script when he gets there. At one stage he has his younger self referring to them as the ‘media-saturated‘ generation, a phrase that neatly confirms what we’ve been thinking right from the start. ‘It feels as though all his references are from American popular culture,’ I wrote some time back. Well, yeh.

It’s happened before, this second-guessing of responses that the reader might be having, objections we might be raising. He lightens it it again, in the middle of what we might expect to be a harrowing scene, with a joke. His suicidal friend asks him why he’s calling him John – and our man reminds him that names have to be changed in books like this, identities concealed. In another bit of de-bunking, there’s commentary about how ‘John’ might be seen as representative of ‘lost youth’. Another joke; another serious point. Underneath the self-conscious denials, he means it.

And so it goes on. Time passes, and in Chapter 8 Eggers gets back to kind of domestic details of earlier chapters. Toph – remember him? – copes with the adult brother who continues to be goofily hopeless at surrogate parenthood. They’ve moved from Berkeley to San Francisco now, and we get scenes of Toph getting himself up, making himself breakfast and a packed lunch, getting himself to school. Eggers’ main concerns seem to be about making sure his younger brother practises his baseball and basketball moves, gets a good view when Clinton goes for a highly publicised walkabout on their street. The game of running a magazine morphs into the realities of the freelance work that has always been necessary to pay for it – morphs into what feels like a real job.

The set piece of this chapter – the rush to hospital with a kidney-stone – confirms what we know: Eggars, reaching his mid-20s now, is still useless. Back home, when he asks his brother to cook, the eleven-year-old has already done it. And… we’re waiting for the big thing to happen in the final third. We don’t know what it is, but Eggers has already told us that it’s going to be something bad. Gulp. We’ve already had more deaths in this book than I’ve mentioned, and I just hope the next bad thing isn’t to do with Toph, like, he gets killed. Eggers has made him impossible to dislike, with his hat that smells of urine and his lack of self-consciousness – to the extent that with the other 20-somethings at the magazine he refers to people of ‘our age’ and only blushes when he realises what he’s said. Let it not be Toph. (I bet it is.)

1 August
Chapters 9-10
Only one chapter to go now, but there have been no more deaths yet, just Eggers playing with the idea. I.e. Eggers the 20-something narrator and Eggers the 30-ish writer are both constantly foregrounding the idea. In the continuous present of what is now the mid-1990s, the staff of Might magazine decide it would be hilarious to create a hoax based on the supposed death of a former child star. The idea is adolescent and crass – I’m starting to get irritated by the refusal of these people to grow up, even a little – and is universally recognised as the cheap stunt it is. A few people are upset, including a former girlfriend of the minor celeb, but, hey, couldn’t they tell it was a joke? I’m not sure whether Eggers the older writer is becoming as exasperated as I am; certainly, the explanation is presented as the as the desperate excuse of a loser.

It’s been wearing thin for some time now, and it isn’t enough that Eggers has already had Toph – ‘You’re stepping out of character again,’ he tells him in one of those faux-arty pre-emptive moves of his – explaining exactly why the hoax is a terrible idea. In their transparently artificial conversation Eggers goes through all the arguments for and against… etc. This is getting just too up its own arse, and having characters point this out doesn’t make any difference. But I’ve probably made this point already.

What adds an extra layer of tastelessness to the jape is the serious head injury of their Asian colleague – the one who, in this tediously self-indulgent world, he likes most for her back massages. She’s in a coma, Eggars makes a tiresome show of being the dutiful visitor – well, like, you have to, don’t you? etc. etc. – and, eventually, she starts to recover. He only realises how tasteless it is to talk to her about the death hoax when he sees the pained expression on her mother’s face. Ho-hum.

Meanwhile, he continues to worry extravagantly about Toph whenever he’s out. It used to be the babysitter who was going to turn into a murderer, and now it’s, well, anybody. When Toph isn’t waiting at the right exit from his school after an open house, Eggers has himself imagining exactly what you’d expect, describes the horrific possible outcomes in that hyperbolic way of his, bawls the boy out when he finds him outside the other entrance. I suppose this is his goofy way of letting us know that beneath it all he cares for the little rascal. I just began to wish this book wasn’t so long. Time to move on.

Chapter 10 – I’ll be quick, honest – is the return to Chicago. It’s about laying ghosts, recognising that there are still unhealed wounds… etc. He’s determined to find something of his parents’ actual remains: one of the things this unregenerate materialist can’t come to terms with is the fact that both of them donated their bodies to medical research, and that his sister refused to accept their ashes from the agency some years later. He resolves on – what? – several preposterous schemes to confront various people who might have had some involvement, eventually discovers his mother’s ashes at the funeral parlour, is terribly embarrassed by having them in his possession, makes a half-arsed decision to do something with them. He makes the requisite hash of scattering them in Lake Michigan and – yawn – blames himself.

Later, or earlier, he thinks back to his hopes for her funeral, pretends to have imagined some kind of baroque apotheosis that contrasts dolefully with the reality. Earlier, or later, he’s called John the depressive largely, as he states, to convince him that his own life is far worse than that of his suicidal friend…. Are you bothered about any of this? Shall I stop now?

Yep.

2 August
Chapter 11 – to the end
I liked this chapter more. There’s a big sense of Eggers bringing things to a close, if not exactly closure, of rounding things off. He revisits a few of his earlier riffs, like the escape from the plunging car scenario and another conversation with John in which they both step outside the normal narrative parameters. This time with John it goes much further, as Eggers has John beat him up about what he’s doing with these symbolically suffering acquaintances of his. Like, the Asian girl: it’s obvious why he makes so much of her story, while his non-suffering friends don’t get a look in. And so on.

It’s become a trope of this story for Eggers to get his self-flagellation in before we have time to criticise what he’s doing. How irritating is this, on a scale of 1-10? About 8 or 9, I’d say, because it never invalidates the criticism – and it’s no good Eggers, in the Preface he expects us to read (if at all) only after we’ve read the book, to pre-empt this point as well. And for Eggers to tell us, in that goofy way of his, that shucks, he knowswhat a jerk-off he is… (yawn). I’ll shut up about it. And I won’t mention the Preface again, which I did only read after the rest of it, because his listing of every single criticism we might come up with simply comes across as a kind of desperation to be liked.

There’s a certain amount of self-conscious symbolism in this chapter: the death of Might magazine juxtaposed with the literal death of Skye, a woman who has been helping them in New York; the recovery of the Asian woman, with her memory stubbornly reluctant to cope with anything since the accident that nearly killed her; the way that Toph is gradually morphing into a more fully-rounded person than his useless older brother. But it seems relatively calm after the hyperactivity of so much of the book, more – would you believe it? – considered. And then they go to the beach, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

I was hugely impressed by the early chapters, as I wrote at the time, because of the control he shows. Do I just mean craftsmanship? Does it matter? Whatever it is, we get it again at the end. As he goes for a (self-consciously symbolic, but let that pass) game of frisbee with Toph on Black Sands beach he intercuts his delight in the pointless skill they display – another revival of an earlier riff – with the still raw emotion he feels about his mother’s death. We have details of the sound of her breathing in the final days – in fact, far more information about that awful New Year than we did the first time around.

Then, in the final page or two, Eggers decides to go somewhere with this narrative that he hasn’t been to before. So far there’s been something touching about the intercutting of these two incongruous threads: the 20-something overgrown kid is treading safe ground with his stupid pride in their skill – ‘we’re good’ – as he tries to stave off the horror. It’s been working, sort of, and he bolsters it with his hope for the future, with his pride in Toph: he’s already caught up with his older brother in a lot of ways, will surpass him in everything soon….

But then it shears off into surrealism. Toph is growing, will soon be seven feet tall, eight, nine – and the narrative begins to unravel as Eggers imagines the frisbee with blades, tearing a bloody gash in the sky to reveal the blackness beyond…. Now he’s addressing his mother angrily – or is it John? Or Skye, or all the other suffering people he’s had to deal with? Soon the numbers are in the millions and the ‘I’ and ‘me’ becomes a self-designated martyr, baring his chest, waiting for whatever is going to happen ‘finally, finally, finally.’

I can’t decide whether I’m impressed by this, or uneasy about the writerly tricksiness. Eggers has gone for a raw a cry of pain that could be just too embarrassing, but somehow it’s made bearable by the love he’s showing for his mother as he describes her death honestly at last, and his brother in his blossoming into something beyond Eggers, outside of him. It’s overwrought, sure, but at last he’s dropped what he calls the quote marks. This closeness, he seems to be letting us know – and I’m not sure how he does it, mixed with the rawness I’ve mentioned – sounds, at last, like the real thing. And I’m more impressed by these final pages than by most of what has gone before.

But…. I like Eggers as a writer when he doesn’t wear his heart, or his literary techniques, so much on his sleeve. And, yes, I do have a problem with that glorification of the individual consciousness so beloved of the Western world, of the self, of the omnipresent ego. The whole book, and the final pages in particular, represents a kind of apotheosis of individualism. And yes, by ‘Western’ I really mean American. It’s hard to imagine any other culture that could have produced a Dave Eggers.

3 Responses to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

  1. jailey says:

    what is something that in ch. 1 is not essential to mention in a summary?

  2. Phuong says:

    Thank you very much

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