A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
There is an epidemic in this country. It has reached critical mass, and it is about to blow. To what am I referring? The tragedy of being a white upper middle class twenty-something, of course. It’s a disease that affects millions of us. The symptoms are chronic boredom, ungratefulness, a penchant for drug and alcohol abuse, and simultaneous painful self-loathing and self-absorption.
Most who suffer from upper middle classness are ashamed. They try to hide it by shopping for the most ragged clothes they can find—whether from Goodwill or Urban Outfitters. They embody the dichotomy of wanting desperately to be cool and hoping sincerely that they don’t seem like they’re trying to be cool. For a group so obsessed with irony, they hardly see the irony in their own sad, self-obsessed lives.
That’s where Dave Eggers comes in: writer and philanthropist, a San Francisco transplant originally from a rich suburb of Chicago. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, the foremost literary journal (and indie publishing imprint) in the United States. The guy is impressive. He is also the proto-hipster of today’s youth. You see, he published a little (lightly fictionalized) memoir in 2000 called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
Let me start off by saying: I usually hate nonfiction. Hate. I find it to be as useless as most people find fiction. There tends to be no imagination, no playfulness in nonfiction—especially not in the memoir genre. Pretty much every memoir I’ve picked up, I have also put down in disgust. Most people are too obtuse to realize that they just aren’t special enough to record their life stories. In fact, I picked up AHWOSG when I was seventeen and again when I was twenty.
Both times, I put it down in boredom. It was attempt number three, mere weeks ago, when I finally pushed through the first thirty pages and ended up captivated to the very last word. The pay-off was way more than I thought it would be. It’s one of those unique books that, though you could technically read it at any age, you just wouldn’t understand his angst until you really entered your twenties. This is no teenage angst. This is a wholly different beast.
But I digress. What makes him stand out in the memoir genre is that he knows how stupid it is to want to be cool and simultaneously to fear being outed as such. The title drips with sarcasm. Right away, you know this guy is his own biggest critic. His work, it turns out, is, in fact, heartbreaking and rather genius. But it functions this way only because he works so hard to let his readers know that they should not be disappointed when they discover that it’s really just his ego leading him to believe that he has led a life worthy of a memoir.
That is what is so magical about AHWOSG. Because he knows he’s just a Normal, he’s positively abnormal. Because he knows he’s not different from any other twenty-something, he is a standalone. And once you realize this, you have to admit: his story is extraordinary. True, most of it is the digressive and rambling blow-by-blow of his manic-depressive thought patterns. He does, however, at only twenty one years old, raise his eight-year-old brother and start up a satirical magazine after not one but both of his parents die within months of one another.
So, not only does he have something to say, but it’s the way in which he says it. Everything is a metaphor. Everything is stylized. It’s god damn beautiful and hard to keep up with. He conquers stream-of-consciousness writing in a way Jack Kerouac couldn’t dream of, going from thinking about his father’s alcoholism to a sexual encounter with a former classmate and back again. Back to the bedroom, and back to the bar, all swiftly and, somehow, all fittingly.
Style-wise, a big portion of AHWOSG is about writing the memoir itself. He argues with himself constantly, berating himself for not remembering how he got kicked out of this girl’s apartment, or what exactly he and his brother, Toph, said to one another while tidying up the bathroom.
Take the dialogue, for instance. Because it’s lightly fictionalized, he takes a lot of liberties with the dialogue. (Who remembers their twenties in such great detail anyways?) What most people use as a vehicle to retell old conversations, Eggers uses as a manner of self-criticism and self-editing. Because the memoir as a whole is a way in which to convey Eggers’ discomfort with his own hubris, he uses his little brother, Toph, and his maybe-suicidal friend, John, as a way to confront himself.
John, for instance, tells Dave that his life is so god damn boring that he uses other people’s chaos for his benefit. That he can’t skate by using others’ pain as his art anymore. To clarify: Eggers questions whether or not his friendships are based on mutual trust and love—or just good material. And who hasn’t gone through that? Everyone has those soul-crushing moments wherein they ask if they’re just with certain friends so they won’t be alone. So they’ll have something to say in the future. Manufactured memories to regurgitate. (No? Just me? Cool. I’ll be in the corner talking shit via text.)
Did I mention that it’s funny? Because it is. One moment, I wanted to cry, and the next, I was the weird girl on the bus laughing at, seemingly, nothing. To be honest, though, as brilliant as the memoir is—playing with style in a way that not even contemporary fiction had done at the time—it’s also exhausting.
By the end, you won’t know where Eggers ends and you begin. And it is truly staggering. It can all be summed up in one sentence when Eggers, incidentally, tries out for the Real World (there’s that sneaky being-cool thing again). With no sense of irony—really—he tells the interviewer: “I have no idea how people function without near-constant chaos.” Me neither, Dave. Me neither.
4.99 meows out of 5
Almost purrfect, but points deducted because it’s a god damn memoir. God damnit!