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, or is it that a thirst for celebrity is the form that a certain kind of youthful vitality inevitably takes in the US? “You feel, deep down,” Toph says, “that because there is no life before or after this, that fame is, essentially, God.” Fame, as it were, puts order into chaos; life doesn’t make sense without it. “These are people,” says Dave of applicants to a reality show, “for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, indefensible.” But of Adam Rich, who in an attempt to ridicule the public obsession with celebrity had agreed to be described by Might as murdered, Dave wonders:
Could he really be doing all this for attention? Could he really be milking his own past to solicit sympathy from a too-long indifferent public?
No, no. He is not calculating enough, cynical enough. It would take some kind of monster, malformed and needy. Really, what sort of person would do that kind of thing?
Indeed. The cleverness of the memoir is to make Dave’s agonized concern about his possibly dishonorable motives for seeking celebrity another form of suffering with which to sympathize, and another performance to admire. The puzzle for the reader is that what we most like about Dave is precisely this lively, supremely slippery self-regard.
Two years later, in his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity! (2002), Eggers invents a charmingly schematic collision between monomania and altruism: two young Americans try to get around the world in a week giving away $32,000 in cash to anyone whose poverty might make them a worthy recipient. The difference in tone between fiction and memoir is not as great as you might suppose; we have a first-person narrator, Will, who is the only real character and consciousness for most of the novel, his close friend Hand being essentially a sidekick whose recklessly confrontational style is bound to make things happen around Will. It is thanks to Hand’s provocation of a group of louts that Will has had his face so seriously smashed that he is embarrassed to appear in public; he will not be seeking the limelight.
Yet Will has already achieved celebrity of a kind. A photograph of him installing a lightbulb was picked up by an advertising agency, which paid $80,000 to use it in silhouette on lightbulb packaging. “I felt briefly, mistakenly, powerful,” remembers Will: “My outline burned into the minds of millions! But then came back down, crashing. It was an outline, it was reductive. It was nothing.” In A Heartbreaking Work, Dave had remarked that the stories you tell about yourself to gain attention are no more than “snake skins” that cease to be you as soon as they are shed. It’s exciting to be known to millions, but disappointing that what is known is not really you. Celebrity is not the way forward. Giving away money, Will hopes, may offer a more real relationship with the world.
What precipitates the decision to make the trip, however, is a death. This is a frequent motif in Eggers’s stories: someone dies, a family or community is shattered, and narrative kicks off from a sense of grief and scandal. The victim here is the twenty-six-year-old Jack, who together with Will and Hand made up a threesome of friends, each balancing the other: Jack “had calm where I had chaos and wisdom where Hand had just a huge gaping always-moving mouth.” With the group’s force for stability gone, Will sets out with Hand to combine a week’s exotic tourism with some impulsive and random charity.
There is a Dumb and Dumber hilarity to the opening pages of You Shall Know Our Velocity: the young men’s ignorance and presumption as they plan their flights; their indignation when some bizarre itinerary (Greenland–Rwanda) proves impossible; their embarrassment approaching people (in Senegal) to give away money; the disruptive consequences of their capricious gifts, some as careless as tossing banknotes out of a car window or taping them to animals:
We found a group of boys working in a field…. They were perfect. But I couldn’t get my nerve up….
“This is predatory,” I said.
“Yeah but it’s okay.”
“Let’s go. We’ll find someone better.”
We drove, though I wasn’t sure it would ever feel right. I would have given them $400, $500, but now we were gone. It was so wrong to stalk them, and even more wrong not to give them the money, a life-changing amount of money here, were the average yearly earnings were, we’d read, about $1,600. It was all so wrong and now we were a mile away and heading down the coast.
Finally, someone states the obvious:
—You do more harm than good by choosing recipients this way. It cannot be fair.
—How ever is it fair?
—You want the control money provides.
—We want the opposite. We are giving up our control.
—While giving it up you are exercising power…. You want its power.
In 2005, in collaboration with other writers, Eggers published two extended polemical essays: Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers and Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated. In his three following full-length works, What Is the What (2006), The Wild Things (2009), and Zeitoun (2009), he chose to tell borrowed stories rather than invent his own. All three have to do with the struggle between chaos and order. Expanding Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story, The Wild Things gives us a Max who seems very much a younger version of Dave in Eggers’s memoir, a boy who would like to be good but whose childish energy leads him to wild misbehavior. Sendak’s vision closely matches Eggers’s and developing it into a full-length novel Eggers has the advantage that he cannot be accused of promoting himself: there are, as Max likes to observe, “other people to blame.”
The other two books are more radical departures. What Is the What gives the true, though novelized, story of a Sudanese refugee who escapes genocide to emigrate to the United States, while Zeitoun, labeled nonfiction, tells of a house painter of Syrian origin, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who remained in New Orleans to help during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina only to find himself arrested on terrorism charges, brutally mistreated, and imprisoned for almost a month. They are tales of heartbreaking suffering, but with the staggering genius of the author now free from suspicion of “milking his past” to achieve celebrity. It is as if, in penitential response to the fertile tension between renunciation and self-indulgence that energized the earlier books, Eggers were trying to eliminate anything self-regarding in the act of writing, imposing an indisputably constructive content and purposefulness.
The premise behind this exercise is that a writer’s talent can simply be switched away from his own concerns to write up, after long interviews and much research, the instructive experiences of others. The books do not bear this out. What Is the What opens with its hero Valentino Achak Deng being mugged and held hostage in his apartment in Atlanta. Bound and gagged, Valentino recounts in extended flashback the story of his infancy in Sudan, the destruction of his happy family in civil strife, and the terrifying vicissitudes of his escape. Doing so, he imagines addressing his words to his assailants, first a black man and woman, then their young son who watches TV while Valentino is bound on the floor:
TV Boy, you are no doubt thinking that we’re absurdly primitive people, that a village that doesn’t know whether or not to remove the plastic from a bicycle—that such a place would of course be vulnerable to attack, to famine and any other calamity. And there is some truth to this. In some cases we have been slow to adapt. And yes, the world we lived in was an isolated one. There were no TVs there, I should say to you, and I imagine it would not be difficult for you to imagine what this would do to your own brain, needing as it does steady stimulation.
This device, of flashback and indignant address, is tediously labored over many pages; suddenly Eggers seems a much less talented writer.