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Subversions, Uncertainties
& the Nonreview
Dave Eggers's
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Caroline Kettlewell

With its playful subversions and self-criticisms, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius set the benchmark for postmodern memoirs--but the book's best moments lie outside Eggers's literary games.

This is not a review of Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

By now there has been so much opining on the sort-of memoir and its Gen-X author (including 267 wildly varied reader reviews on Amazon.com, a coterie of Eggers groupies, and a counter-movement of anti-Eggers who loathe the guy on principle) that it's hard to justify weighing in with one more equally subjective point of view.

If this were a review, I would probably tell you, in case you have managed to avoid this knowledge thus far, a little bit about the narrative arc of the book: the college-age Eggers, his seven-year-old brother Christopher (called "Toph" with a long "o" by Eggers), and their older siblings Bill and Beth are orphaned when their parents die of cancer within weeks of each other. The rest of the book sketches Dave Eggers' life in the wake of this harsh coming-of-age. Eggers and Toph set up house together in Berkeley, California (leaving their childhood home of Lake Forest, Illinois, behind), Eggers trying to be both parent and brother while floundering about in search of meaning in the age of irony, in the way of bright young people in the 1990s who didn't happen to be lucky enough to become dot-com millionaires (and some who did).

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers
485 pp.

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There aren't too many criticisms you could make of the book that Eggers himself doesn't make--and make, for that matter, within the book itself. The book begins with "This was uncalled for" before you even reach the title page. In number four of the "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book" that follow the title page, Eggers suggests "many of you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239-351, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time." In the Acknowledgements, which go on for page after page after page, Eggers writes:


While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality.... He also plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality. Further, he is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book's irrelevance due to said gimmickry....


And so on.

The whole book is like this, operating in a constant state of self-referential undercutting of itself. The newly-released paperback edition has even more than the original hardback.

If you find this sort of knowingness and post-something-or-other-ist clowning around irritating, you definitely shouldn't read this book. If you find memoirs irritating, you shouldn't read this book. There is no point in deliberately choosing to read books you know you will find irritating when there are more than enough things to irritate you in an ordinary day (like telephone solicitors and the instructions "Press in and tear back" on a box of macaroni and cheese which, as anyone who has ever tried to follow these instructions knows perfectly well, never work) without going out of your way to be irritated.

On the other hand, at moments--such as the opening chapters describing Eggers's mother's dying weeks, which manage to capture the brutal and mundane ordinariness of a lingering death--the book is painfully, unsettlingly specific in its language.


I step down into the garage and she spits. It is audible, the gurgling sound. She does not have the towel or the half-moon receptacle. The green fluid comes over her chin and lands on her nightgown. A second wave comes but she holds her mouth closed, her cheeks puffed out. There is green fluid on her face.


Perhaps you recall all those times in English, and later, literature, classes where the instructor / teacher / professor would stand at the front of the classroom or wander casually through the rows of desks, or maybe you were all sitting cozily gathered around a conference table or even on squishy sofas in an intimate upper-level "seminar"--at any rate, there you were and you were "analyzing" the current reading assignment. What does Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, Donne, Frost, Auden, Shaw, Updike, Sexton, Eliot, Pynchon, Hawthorne (you can see I came of literary age before the Western Canon went out of fashion) mean when he / she writes....?

I have two post-secondary degrees in English and I have even taught literature, and yet I have never been able to shake the feeling that there is one right answer, probably printed in red in the back of the coveted Teacher's Edition, to questions like "What does the author mean?" and "What is the author trying to say?" and "Why is it important to the story that the protagonist has only one leg?" Only, I never felt particularly certain I knew the answer; every English paper I ever wrote felt like throwing a dart in the dark, and every time I fully expected a failing grade.

Thus I have always been mystified by book reviews that assert confidently, "Clearly, Rise and Shine: The Complete Bread Machine Cookbook is a meditation on mortality and the evanescence of perfection." How is it that the reviewer knows this with such certainty?

So I am going to go ahead and admit right here that I can't tell you what Dave Eggers is trying to say with AHWOSG. Eggers himself helpfully provides an "Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors," and he also claims a lot of other things about the book, but how far you want to trust any of it is up to you. I could tell you what kinds of things I thought Dave Eggers was trying to say, and I'm sure I could support my conclusions by citing appropriate passages from the book; after all, in the end I almost always got an "A" on those papers I was certain I'd failed. But I remember reading a review once of AHWOSG that claimed that the last page of the narrative was a knowing pastiche of Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of Joyce's Ulysses. Is it? Sez who?

Since entire scholarly careers have been made (and broken) on the question of the subjectivity versus objectivity of meaning, I'm going to leave that topic to those who actually use the word "semiotics" in casual conversation. I'm just going to point out that it would be monumental arrogance on my part to tell you whether or not you should read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Given, the two post-secondary degrees in English, but what really qualifies me to be the arbiter of your literary taste? How should I know whether or not you will like this book? You may love it. You may think it is the best book ever written. You may loathe it and consider it your personal mission to defame Dave Eggers whenever the opportunity arises. You may be indifferent--like my friend who says, "It was okay, but I got bored and couldn't finish it."

For what it's worth, however, I mostly liked it, even in spite of that reflexive urge to dislike something that everyone else likes just to prove that, unlike everyone else, you are not a swinish slave to popular taste. I mostly liked it, though now of course I have to say what I didn't like in order to prove that I am not a swinish slave to popular taste, or trying to curry favor with Dave Eggers.

So okay. The word "fuck," along with its various derivatives and near-relatives, was used more than I thought strictly necessary; like the red chili sauce on the table at the Vietnamese restaurant, a little "fuck" goes a long way, though both are a matter of taste. I didn't get the lengthy hand-wringing over driving around with his mother's ashes in a box in his car--what's the big deal there? Sometimes the meta-riffs, like the fictionalized transcript of Eggers's interview audition for the cast of MTV's Real World, go on too long, leaving all but the most dedicated readers with an irresistible urge to skip (which Eggers does invite you to do).

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, one Sean Wilsey, interviewed, says that the book is "300-odd pages of what it's like to talk to Dave." Eggers's friend Marny says, "What he thinks is on the paper. His brain is kind of on the page." You can imagine Eggers's friends at two in the morning wearily begging "enough already," and there are times in this book, dear reader, when you may feel much the same way.

But there are all those other parts, parts I thought were quite wonderful, and parts that were laugh-out-loud funny, and parts that were clever in a truly clever and not an oh-isn't-he-being-clever way, and they made you stop and think. AHWOSG plays fast-and-loose with all kinds of literary conventions, right down to the copyright page, that most of us never get around to thinking about, much less thinking about subverting, and much of the time the book does so in a sometimes interesting and yes, sometimes labored effort to unlayer the real truth of Eggers' experiences. And I can assure you, having written a memoir of my own (never pass up an opportunity to flog your own book) that it is stupefyingly hard--much harder than you can imagine until you try it yourself--to write a true story.

Editor's Note: Caroline Kettlewell is the author of Skin Game: A Memoir.

Click here to read WAG's review of Skin Game.
Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.


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