May 29th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is my seventh book in the To Be Read reading challenge. As many of my other picks are, this is a book I feel like everyone in the universe had read except me–until now.

What kept me away was all the things that Eggers predicted would keep pretentious types away–the dense and contrarian introductory materials, the cutesy flip-it-upside-down-and-backwards appendix at the back, the “daring” title. And an extra one that’s just me–I don’t like memoir.

Fine, I know this is my failing–I read all book-length prose narratives as if they were novels, and if one is being faithful to the facts, life rarely has the shape and satisfactions of a novel. It has it’s own satisfactions, I know–though rarely an obvious shape–but I don’t care. I want the novelistic ones when I’m reading a book that looks–to me–like a novel.

AHWoSG (as it is referred to in the running heads) is a strangely shaped book, and thus–to me–low on tension. If you’re the one other guy who hasn’t read it, in brief, Dave Eggers parents both died of cancer, within 5 weeks of each other, when he was 22. Eggers had a sister and a brother both a couple years older than him, who helped him and their parents cope. But there was also a much younger brother, Toph, who was only 7 or 8 at the time (I think; I somehow can’t find the earliest reference to Toph’s age). For reasons that (to me) never seem clear, the next-youngest sibling, Dave, is the one to take custody of the boy.

The first chapter, on the end of Heidi Eggers’ life, is incredibly vivid, moving, terrible, and wryly funny. The dialogue is sharp and weird:

“Ah!” she says.
“Sorry,” I say.
“It’s cold.”
“It’s ice.
“I know it’s ice.”
“Well, ice is cold.

It’s kind of quietly devastating, the way the characters are such a comfortable, fully functioning family (under the circumstances), walking around with the knowledge that they aren’t getting to function at all for much longer. Throughout the book (gah–I almost typed “novel”), it’ll be Eggers’ relationship with and mourning for his mom that is rendered most clearly, emotionally, brilliantly.

Oh, and did I mention? The prose is very brilliant–but not in a way you think a lot about. Actually, I glanced at some other reviews of AHWoSG, and some people thought about the prose a great deal, but I found it natural, fluid, hilarious and transparent–the prose seemed to be a clear glass window into the narrator’s mind. I know, it takes work to achieve that illusion, but unlike other first-time authors I could mention, Eggers is happy not to draw too much attention to himself. After the title, he’s either assured we think he’s a genius, or he doesn’t care–he’s a lot of fun to read.

So when he goes off to San Francisco with Toph and gets into the humdrum impossibilities of real life–finding a place to live, cooking food, playing Frisbee (oh, god, he does go on about the Frisbee) it’s fun reading, and fast–light as air, in fact. And interspersed in present-day details are flashes of the past, where we learn about how things were when his parents were alive, when he and Beth and Bill were around Toph’s age and living in the house. Things were complicated. Things were hard and sometimes they were scary and some people behaved really badly, but there were no demons–no saints or angels either. There were just people who lived with each other who were a little fucked up. Eggers mourns the fucked-upped-ness almost as much as he mourns the love.

So, what’s my problem? you might ask. Regular readers know that the above sounds like (one of) my ideal reading experiences. The problem is that aside from quotidian scenes about Frisbee or food, so very much of the book is interior monologues. The dead inhabit those monologues, so we get a decent sense of Mr. and Mrs. Eggers, but the living escape the narrator’s telling, and thus all the non-dead characters are pretty much cardboard cutouts with one or two interesting scenes each, all in service of the narrator illuminating a point about himself.

The other thing I hate about memoirs is what I call “special pleading”–this comes up a lot in “heavily autobiographical fiction,” which is something I like sometimes, but almost exclusively when you can’t tell that’s what it is. My personal feeling is that a writer should not write anything where he or she is too invested in how much a reader likes or dislikes a character. There should be no shielding of characters from a reader’s harsh judgement, no censorship of details relevant to the plot, no slanting the narrative so that some come off better than they should. Even in fiction, you can’t lie.

But it seemed to me that Eggers did protect his characters, and thus unless you’re dead or the narrator, there’s no character development in this book. Dave eventually starts a magazine with his alleged best friends Moodie and Marny, who are in many scenes that take place at the magazine, yet have almost no dialogue. They have no preferences, moods, opinions, or thoughts–they are merely around, because it would be weird if the narrator claimed to have run a magazine by himself.

Eggers has a girlfriend at the beginning of the book, Kirsten, whom he dates on and off for about 2/3s of it–then they break up, she is briefly roommates with his sister, and eventually she marries someone else and he is very happy for her. Again, she has no dialogue and we learn nothing about her–though she attends his mother’s funeral (and has sex with Eggers in the parents’ closet afterwards) we don’t know a thing about what she thinks about it.

That’s true for *everyone* in the book–Beth, his sister, lives nearby and helps raise Toph…sort of. She actually seems to never be around and Eggers is always having to find a sitter if he wants to go out. But how much of that is reportage and how much of that is ellision–Beth’s part isn’t portrayed, out of respect or deference to her wishes or…I don’t know. I just know it pissed me off when the characters are at a wedding and Eggers thinks that that wedding reminds him of Beth’s, six months ago, to “a nice young man.” This is the first and last we hear of that relationship.

What I’m telling you is why I found the book annoying. What I’m *not* telling you is why I think the book is bad…I don’t know that I do think that. The narrator rants late in the book about how using characters’ real names, even phone numbers, is meaningless. He says, “You have only what I can afford to give you,” and that is such a true and shocking way of looking at memoir. This book is a very closed-off, shut-down, limited way of exposing personal tragedy. Eggers pontificates at length about how he needed to write the book to heal himself, and in that sense he had to protect whatever he felt needed protecting–but I’m not interested in therapy (well, not in this context). I’m interested in the reading experience and I feel like this one was a highly manipulated, tightly controlled, edging-on-dishonest one–and I’m fascinated by the ways I’ve been manipulated. There are too many to count, especially since this review is already 1200 words.

So what I’m saying is, I didn’t enjoy reading this book. It was frustratingly narrow and (with appendices, etc) close to 500 pages. If you write a narrow book at that length, you end up with endless pages about nothing (no more Frisbee!) and an often-bored Rebecca, but you also end up really immersing the reader in a single point of view, an intense experience.

Eggers achieved something here. I’m not sure what and I’m also not sure that I cared for it all that much, but the book was worth reading. I had hoped that writing this review would show me what I really think of the book, but I still don’t know. So I’m going to continue to think about my ideas about truth in narrative, and the ways it gets manipulated. And no book that makes you think is all bad.

3 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* by Dave Eggers”

  • Kerry says:

    And then Beth killed herself!! That part didn’t get in the book either…

  • Rebecca says:

    Oh, god, I didn’t know about that! I had thought Beth wasn’t really characterized because she didn’t want to be, but (via Google) I see she was angry about being left out of the book so much. What a terrible situation!

  • Marry says:

    Clearly this book isn’t for everyone. It’s incredibly self-reflexive. It’s more than willing to employ a device while simultaneously satirizing it. Eggers, as described in his own words, is rarely likeable, noble, humble, or charming. Instead, he’s self-indulgent, arrogant, and so full of neurosis that Woody Allen looks calm and confident in comparison.
    And while these factors will elicit cries of how overrated the work is, I find them the fuel behind what is a darkly compelling fever dream. Eggers takes the theme of being consumed (by cancer, by being young and wanting to make a mark on the world, by the responsibility of raising a child while maintaining friendships) and exposes its results in a harsh light. And it’s angry and difficult and … well … real.
    Far different and more challenging than the back-patting, self-congratulatory, “Gee, aren’t I a strong and admirable person for surviving these tribulations?” tone that fills most stories of this genre. I congratulate him on avoiding making things neat and tidy. The result is an astonishing, staggering, and, ultimately, heartbreaking work.
    For more comments and reviews…

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