The title of Dave Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), brings two assumptions into sharp relation: that we want to read about suffering and that writerly genius manifests itself in the evocation of suffering. With comic hyperbole, the reader is promised someone to sympathize with and someone to admire; in this case, the same person. Meantime, the blurbish ring to the words reminds us that the book is born into a world of hackneyed hype and anxiously constructed celebrity. If our genius chose this puff for a title can his motives be pure, is his ego under control? Eggers is letting us know he wants to have some fun with this.
There are four hundred very full pages but the outline is quickly sketched. Aged twenty-one, Dave loses both parents to cancer. The family wrecked, he takes over the parenting of his eight-year-old brother Christopher, or Toph, and moves from Illinois to California to be near his elder sister Beth and brother Bill. No longer under stern parental control, Dave, excited, liberated, quickly understands that society feels somehow guilty in regard to orphans like themselves, offering generous subsidies and recognizing their victim status as a form of celebrity. The more society expresses this guilt, the more self-righteous Dave feels in his efforts to be an ideal guardian for Toph. Drawn toward journalism, blessed or cursed with a manic energy, sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive, frequently both, Dave hungers for visibility. He starts up a satirical magazine, Might, on the side of youth and liberal rectitude, and considers turning his parents’ sickness and death into a blockbuster memoir.
Dave is given to wild exaggeration. He loves to tell tales, forgivable because hilarious, endearing because so obviously the product of a youthful desperation to achieve. The exaggeration seeps into the memoir itself; an interview where Dave explains to a TV producer why he should be on a reality show becomes a fifty-page tour-de-force. Much of what he tells the producer beggars belief, while the length and elaborate nature of the interview suggest that Eggers is exaggerating for us what exaggeration there may have been at this encounter, assuming it took place.
Despite our amused skepticism, the technique works as memoir; this is the kind of person Dave is. We have not so much his life as his constant retelling of it. All is performance and persuasion with the present state of Dave’s mind the only topic on offer. Long conversations with Toph, for example, allow the younger boy to deconstruct, with sophistication beyond his years, the self-serving, pseudoethical positions Dave takes in his magazine. Rather than giving an accurate picture of Toph, it seems Dave is aware of his brother mostly insofar as he offers a foil to explore his own misgivings. After Toph lands one particularly eloquent blow, Dave protests: “You’re breaking out of character again.”
Is Eggers’s memoir actually about celebrity …