In little over a month, in the early Nineties, a twenty-one-year-old college senior named Dave Eggers lost both his parents to cancer. Eggers’s older brother and sister were launched on business lives and postgraduate education, so he took over as de facto guardian of the family’s youngest child, eight-year-old Christopher (nicknamed Toph). At the same time he became the family memoirist, describing—in a journal that serves as the basis of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—his parents’ terminal illnesses, his own performance as quasi parent of a younger sibling, and concurrent episodes in his sputtering career in San Francisco, as founding editor of a satirical journal called Might and would-be cast member of the MTV series The Real World.
Enthusiastically reviewed and widely promoted, A Heartbreaking Work turned up on best-seller lists the week it appeared and remained on them for months thereafter, winning rank as a cultural event (paperback rights brought a reported $1,400,000). “It’s been a long time,” said one author, Robert Polito, “perhaps as far back as Gravity’s Rainbow, since I’ve seen so many people on the subway reading a serious hardcover book and talking about it.” Eggers emerged as a Manhattan presence, highly visible in media interviews, humor pieces in the weeklies, and as the editor of a literary journal (McSweeney’s) praised by other editors and literary people.
Some strongly felt memories of dysfunctional family life breathe in A Heartbreaking Work and there’s an affecting although sketchy and evasive portrait of the writer’s mother. A short inventory of elements of the book’s success would begin with intensive reader flattery—especially the assurance that readers are too smart to need a linear narrative. Other items in the inventory would include authorial rage to ingratiate, stylized bitterness and stoicism in the manner of Heller, Vonnegut, and Salinger, a smug, ill-informed apoliticality, dismissal of race issues, scorn of elders, messianic leanings, “postmodernism” reduced to shtick, and a conviction that shamelessness confessed is shamelessness absolved.
Described in a dust jacket blurb as “endlessly self-ironizing,” Eggers directs a steady flow of initially amusing criticism at himself for ignorance, stalling, and the like. He also directs—in thirty-plus pages of prefatory fine print and elsewhere in his book—much sedulous if prankish compliment at readers. The latter are imagined as persons of much creative patience, eager to puzzle out contextless snippets omitted from the body of the work ahead, notes on passages in the work that should be skipped, rules and suggestions for reading, “guides to symbols and metaphors,” and other anti-novelish bits. The pages in question shuttle from awkwardly intricate self-scrutiny (“his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality”) to slapdash mucker-posing (“until last spring [I] thought Evelyn Waugh was a woman and that George Eliot was a man”) to formal salutes to the sophisticated (“The author wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He too has reservations”). Tongue-in-cheek promises of five-dollar rebates to the first two hundred …