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 shoppers who submit proof of purchase of the book are elaborately particularized and spliced into acknowledgments that this “seemingly endless [introductory] screwing about, interminable clearing of one’s throat, can very easily look like, or even become, a sort of contemptuous stalling.” But Eggers stresses that the stalling itself is a form of considerateness to the reader: “a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story, which is both too black and blinding to look at—avert …your…eyes!”
At readings the author performs passages from his work to musical accompaniment by a guitarist friend. (Members of the audience choose the passages to be performed, calling out page numbers to the performers.) He also hires go-go dancers and charters buses that carry selected attendees to bars and art galleries (paintings by elephants were the attraction at one gallery). “Friends mean everything to me,” he observes. “I cling to them with white knuckles and beady eyes.”
Eggers speaks often of himself as having a message but is wary of spelling it out, seemingly concerned about being perceived as a moralizer or pedant. (“A few good friends,” he tells an interviewer, “wrote ‘No! No!’ in the margins every time I started pontificating,” and he cut the passages.) Countering suspicion that he’s a goody-goody, he reports in A Heartbreaking Work on his masturbatory habits, and argues for exhibitionism as a value (“If you don’t want anyone to know about your existence, you might as well kill yourself”). And he regularly flashes his hip bona fides, establishing that he sees through almost everything, wasn’t overattached to his mother, doesn’t want the pity or sympathy his losses stir in the compassionate, and is above all complex (embodies extremes, is a mass of contradictions). The book’s prefatory screwing-about is followed by an account of the late stages of Heidi Eggers’s struggle against stomach cancer. Her pain and despair are movingly evoked—the hopelessness of the struggle, the reek of the blood draining unstaunchably from the dying woman’s nose, the inability of her children to comfort her. But as the forty-page chapter proceeds, its formulaic, deadpan bitterness commences drawing attention to itself. (“‘Is [your nose] still bleeding?’ I ask, sucking on my popsicle.”) Reflecting on the external intravenous feeding bag and tube that have replaced his mother’s stomach, Eggers writes:
It’s kind of cute, the IV bag. She used to carry it with her, in a gray backpack—it’s futuristic-looking, like a synthetic ice pack crossed with those liquid food pouches engineered for space travel. We have a name for it. We call it “the bag.”
Studying the fish tank in the sickroom where his mother lies—fish died in it weeks before and the tank is gray and moldy with feces—Eggers notes:
I am wondering about something. I am wondering what the water would taste like. Like a nutritional shake? Like sewage? I think of asking my mother: What do you think that would taste like?
Imagining his mother’s last hours—the stream of visitors, the mindlessly chatting relatives and family friends—he entertains himself with comedy about a meaningless priest:
There will be baked goods. There will be Father Mike, a young red-haired priest assigned to us—how do they assign the priests? I picture something like a police dispatcher, barking commands—“O’Bannan, you’ve got the disaster on Waveland”—with the priests groaning once given their orders.
Close to the end of this almost four-hundred-page work the author allows himself an extended grief aria for his mother (flights of angels transport her heavenward from her funeral)—but before then lapses into tenderness are rare, as Eggers himself acknowledges. When he collects his mother’s “cremains” from a funeral director and broods—on the Lake Michigan shore—about an appropriate interment, he writes, “Look what I’m doing, with my tape recorder and notebook, and here at the beach, with this box—calculating, manipulative, cold, exploitive.” (The cremains venture ends with Eggers the clumsy mourner involved in black comedy: “I open the canister…. Inside is a bag of kitty litter, tied at the top. Fuck. Someone switched the ashes with this fucking kitty litter. This is not it. Where is the ash, the ash like dust?”)
As already noted, echoes of old masters of helpless bitterness resound throughout A Heartbreaking Work: Eggers acknowledges having devoured Kurt Vonnegut in high school. But his purposes in warding off pity and suspicion of niceness are clearly his own. “I wanted more than anything,” he tells an interviewer, “to make my recent self seem ridiculous and annoying.”
Explaining his willingness, at age twenty-one, to take a younger brother in tow, Eggers cites the fringe benefits of guardianship—among them, improved opportunities for sexual scoring. He was dutiful about attending school functions, he reports, not to show orthodox parents that his young charge had a competent adult protector but for another reason: “My goal, a goal I honestly thought was fairly realistic, was to meet an attractive single mother and have Toph befriend the mother’s son so we can arrange playdates, during which the mother and I will go upstairs and screw around while the kids play outside.” In addition: for a Victor Frankenstein type like himself, there was the pleasure of shaping a zombie to his own will:
[My brother’s] brain is my laboratory, my depository. Into it I can stuff the books I choose, the television shows, the movies, my opinion about elected officials, historical events, neighbors, passersby. He is my twenty-four-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile. He is a lucky, lucky boy! And no one can stop me. He is mine, and you cannot stop me, cannot stop us.
As for those stuffed opinions: corporate America and officialdom worldwide are gripped by absurd delusions of power. Viacom Inc. is “wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, all of Central America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled.” But regardless of the size of
such companies…and how many things they own, or how much money they have or make or control, their influence over the daily lives and hearts of individuals, and thus, like ninety-nine percent of what is done by official people in cities like Washington, or Moscow, or São Paulo or Auckland, their effect on the short, fraught lives of human beings who limp around and sleep and dream of flying through bloodstreams… is very, very small, and so hardly worth worrying about.
Race is an uninteresting subject overhyped by politicos. Speaking warmly of his nearly all-white suburban home town (Lake Forest, Illinois), Eggers remembers that the only black children he saw, as a schoolboy, were Mr. T.’s daughters (the performer had recently moved to Lake Forest) and “Steve the Black Guy”:
He was just this average guy, not incredibly popular, but nice enough. And so people liked him, and people I guess thought it was this odd novelty that he was different, odd in the same way that it was odd that one kid had a crewcut, or that one girl, I forget her name, she hung out with the basketball players, was a dwarf. So he was Steve the Black Guy.
Postpublication, the writer sought to moderate the impression of unconcern left by various remarks in his book. “Part of me,” he told an interviewer, “thinks the issue is so boring and old and silly (race can be such a waste of time, such a pointless diversion from deeper things), but another part of me finds it absolutely electric and vital.”
Middle-aged and older Americans alike are lifeless and strikingly irresponsible:
We are new and everyone else is old. We are the chosen ones, obviously the queens to their drones—the rest…are aging, past their prime, sad, hopeless…. They are over. They are walking corpses…. [We are] ready to kick the saggy asses of the gray-haired, thickly bespectacled, slump-shouldered of Berkeley’s glowering parentiscenti!
Eggers reports himself “too stunned to speak” when, in his hearing, a suburban mother in stretch pants preens herself for letting her tenth-grader smoke pot at home. “She should be jailed,” he writes. “And I should raise her children. Maybe I’m the only one qualified to raise all these kids—so many of these parents are too old, dusty.”
Questioned about “what structural notion” he had in mind as he wrote, Eggers responds in part:
I guessed I wanted more than anything else for the book to defy any linearity…. When I began the narrative in earnest, I was appalled again and again by how linear it was becoming. Of course, I didn’t really intend to leave many parts as they were left. I really wanted to dig in again and revise and couch everything in more and better devices—I had a few dozen stylistic and formal tricks I wanted to use when reshaping some of those passages—but in the end I found it really hard to deal with some of that material in any way….
In the fifty-page audition-interview for the MTV show The Real World that is the centerpiece of A Heartbreaking Work, Eggers holds forth on his qualifications as spokesperson and as “inspiration and cautionary tale.” Conducted by a producer named Laura, the interview opens with reflections on the causes, among twenty-somethings, of “pure insinuating solipsism.” (Solipsism is “the main by-product of…comfort and prosperity …the absence of struggle against anything in the way of a common enemy—whether that’s poverty, Communists, whatever.”) There’s comment on the difference between inward-turning and outward-turning self-obsession. (Inward-turning obsessives, unresponsive to others, lack interest in anything but their own “haunted house of a brain.” Outward-turning obsessives command respect because, although self-absorbed, they believe in the possibility of teaching by example—“think their personality is so strong, their story so interesting, that others must know it and learn from it.”)
There are patches of sonority on Generation X preoccupation with fame, the “media,” and personal looks:
…We’ve grown up thinking of ourselves in relation to the political-media-entertainment ephemera, in our safe and comfortable homes, given the time to think about how we would fit into this or that band or TV show or movie, and how we would look doing it. [We] are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, indefensible.
And there are hard-sell bits, wherein the author talks marketing to media moguls, showing he knows the angles, grasps “the demographic,” is fully aware of the “bottom line”:
I represent everyone who grew up suburban and white, but then I’ve got all these other things going for me. I’m Irish Catholic, and can definitely play that up if you want. And then the Midwest thing, which I don’t need to tell you is pretty valuable. And if you want to go hard-core rural, play that angle, I went to school in the middle of a cornfield, have seen cows, smelled their waste every day there was a south wind. Oh and: it was a state school. So, I can be the average white suburban person, midwestern, knowing of worlds both wealthy and central Illinoisian, whose looks are not intimidating, who’s self-effacing but principled, and—and this is the big part—one whose tragic recent past touches everyone’s heart, whose struggles become universal and inspiring.
At the end these separately pitching characters—sociologist, culture critic, high school bright boy, and so on—are overpowered by a voice that’s apostolic, prayerful, and evidently half-desperate for alms and a Name. “Reward me for my suffering,” Eggers pleads, apparently believing that, as a cast member of a “real-life” TV show, he could tell his story. “Put me on television. Let me share this with millions.” Confessing, keening, supplicating, Whitmanizing, insisting that “everyone must know,” promising that he’ll perform “slowly, subtly, tastefully,” averring he’s earned a shot at the multitude (“I deserve this. I have this coming…. I give you these things, and you give me a platform. So give me my platform. I am owed”), the would-be TV star becomes for long pages at a stretch a caterwauling, cross-sectional messiah:
Give me something…. I promise I will be good. I will be sad and hopeful. I will be the conduit. I will be the beating heart. Please see this! I am the common multiplier for 47 million! I am the perfect amalgam! I was born of both stability and chaos…. I am bursting with the hopes of a generation, their hopes surge through me, threaten to burst my hardened heart! Can you not see this?… I am the product of my environment, and thus representative, must be exhibited, as inspiration and cautionary tale. Can you not see what I represent? I am both a) martyred moralizer and b) amoral omnivore born of the suburban vacuum + idleness + television + Catholicism + alcoholism + violence…. I need community, I need feedback, I need love, connection, give-and-take—I will bleed if they will love. Let me try…. Pass over me at your peril! I could die soon…. I need to bring this message now…. I need to grab this while I can, because I could go at any minute, Laura, Mother, Father, God—…Let me be the conduit…. Oh, I want to be the heart pumping blood to everyone, blood is what I know, I feel so warm in blood, can swim in blood, oh let me be the strong-beating heart that brings blood to everyone! I want—
Here as everywhere self-ironizing persists (“my hardened heart,” “I will be sad and hopeful”); the writer wants it understood that he’s conscious of his excess, critical of his absurdities—isn’t to be confused with the shame-less crawler-before-the-media-gods who happens to bear his name. When MTV rejects him, he falls quickly into bluster mode. (“Fuck it. Stupid show…. We don’t need The Real World, we don’t need any crutches, we don’t need an ongoing role on a television show with a massive worldwide audience and an unquantifiable kind of influence over the hearts and minds of the young and impressionable of the world. No. We will continue, against the odds, with only these simple tools, these small hands.”)
The sour grapes and the preceding hyperbolics are two sides of a single coin. But even as he grins at the extravagance of both, the writer clings, “against the odds,” to the rhetoric of mission and message. It’s plain that at some level he believes that he’s owed and that he has lessons to teach.
What message, what lessons? A lengthy chapter in the second half of A Heartbreaking Work is devoted to the staging, by the editors of Might, of a hoax about the death of a celebrity—a TV actor named Adam Rich. Presumably intended to teach a lesson about the vacuity of celebrity worship, the chapter lacks focus and urgency. But Eggers’s chuckling preoccupation with—and defiant candor about—his own crass ambition and fantasies of fame may have sharpened his book’s attractiveness to readers in their twenties or younger. Popular literary characters in the recent past—Roth’s Portnoy and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield are examples—spoke with unapologetic frankness about subjects their elders proscribed, thereby charming large audiences. Eggers’s elders tell themselves that schoolboy murderers, rock groupies, toddler beauty queens (and their coaches) are freaks. But hunger for renown is now ever more broadly diffused; commodified fame creates a near-universal itch for stardom. And in dealing with the itch with as little embarrassment as his literary predecessors dealt in their time with adolescent libido, Eggers appeals to an audience that hears in his voice hitherto unarticulated and widely shared anxieties about ascent from nonentity.
The problem is that, in A Heartbreaking Work, these anxieties and cravings are less vividly alive than the subjects from which they divert the author’s imagination. There are, to repeat, several strongly felt moments in the work, namely those recounting Eggers’s panic when his demented alcoholic father roars up the stairs to beat him (the lad’s mother saves him in a scene not shown to the reader), Eggers’s extreme anxiety at the thought that a babysitter he’s hired to care for his brother may be untrustworthy, Eggers’s pain at the realization, at his mother’s funeral, that the large crowd of mourners he had hoped for and expected won’t materialize.
Had Eggers been less rigidly bound into the culture of knowingness, less obedient to the counsel of friends overdisposed to see through everything, these experiences might have led to a ponderable message. Some possible themes: mortal pain and suffering in a loved one can’t be seen through or managed by hard-nosed, distancing irony; grownup acquaintance with the weight of responsibility for the well-being of a child clarifies the sacred character of the obligation; gauging the depths of the roots of injustice on earth is easier if one has learned something, through contention with one’s own grudgingness, about the infrequency with which genuine human worth in others earns more than perfunctory regard.
But to bring to life such themes the memoirist needs to place himself differently in relation to both his material and his audience. He needs to shed his terror of banality. He needs to acknowledge that, if the misfortunes of his life have provided him access to some truths hidden from most of his immediate contemporaries, that access has been owing to an elder’s selflessly courageous devotion. (Although her story is marginalized in this work, sealed off in undramatized corners, one gathers that Heidi Eggers was uncommonly brave, fought her drunken husband times past counting, protected her children at immense cost, and tried with passion to teach them not to whine.)
Beyond this, Eggers needed to seek a language rich enough to overcome inhibitions about giving domestic hero-ism like his mother’s its full due—an idiom capable of calling up the true costs and benefits of self-forgetful surrender to the claims of others. More committed than he knew (despite the brandished self-consciousness) to screwing around, this “perfect amalgam” and “common multiplier”—this “charming”/ugly, loving/loutish, self-touting scourge of sentimentality—never embarked on that search. Out came a blockbuster instead.
[*] Eggers’s sister Beth argues, in interviews, that her brother exaggerates his role as guardian and unfairly deprecates her own contribution. See “Et tu Beth?” Harper’s, August 2000, p. 23.