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The tragic-comic story of Dave Eggers.

By Ashley Fantz

MARCH 6, 2000: 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Simon & Schuster), 375 pp., $23

There are three ways to attain celebrity. Do something bad, do something good, or write a memoir that so plucks the heart strings of America that everyone is playing the orchestra of your sorry life.

Read anything about Dave Eggers lately?

The 29-year-old's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the official hot topic of debate among chatty critics from Salon to Entertainment Weekly. As the editor of Might, a now-defunct satirical magazine and the hip quarterly McSweeney's, Eggers is a master at understanding what readers want entertainment, man, entertainment. No one likes a sappy Suzanne Somers My Daddy was a Drinker tell-all. Clearly a student of the David Foster Wallace school of writing, Eggers goes on for pages about nothing important to his story, which happens to be the death of his parents to unrelated cancers when he was 21 and how he raised his younger brother Toph (short for Christopher.)

Call it gimmicky or the clever use of literary devices, Eggers gives Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of This Book. He recommends skipping pages 209-301, "which concern the lives of people in their early twenties" whose lives "are difficult to make interesting." The preface gives instructions on how to follow the dialogue and personality jumps of the characters, repeatedly noting that the memoir is mostly fiction due to memory lapses. He acknowledges NASA for their help.

If it weren't for the vivid description of Eggers holding his mother's bleeding nose while she lay on their living room couch dying slowly each day, if he didn't write how he and his older sister Beth would run quickly to the living room entrance just to check if she was still breathing lest she die when they were in the bathroom or cooking dinner, the memoir would be at best a funny reflection on a young writer's life. At worst it would be self-indulgent therapy on paper. It's a blessed thing that his editors did not cut sizable chunks from Eggers manuscript. But impatient readers might wish they had. Eggers devotes 48 pages for a partly fictionalized interview/audition for MTV's The Real World in which he explains his paranoia of dying young, guilt for not giving his parents a proper burial, and suspicion that his mother's illness was caused by the stress of his father's alcoholism. This is all hashed on page 200 too long to wait to know what Eggers thinks of his father. It is the only moment in his memoir when he runs away from anything, perhaps because his father encapsulates what makes his past truly heartbreaking.

As much as he embraces his responsibility to look after Toph, writing that he is "24 but feels ten thousand years old," Eggers is convinced that he and his brother are "owed" and deserve to experiment with what a family should be. On a road trip from their suburban Chicago home to a new life in Berkeley, California, Eggers realizes his brother's brain is his for the molding. "He is mine and you cannot stop us. You cannot stop us from singing, and you cannot stop us from making fart sounds, from putting our hands out the window to test the aerodynamics of different hand formations, from wiping the contents of our noses under the front of our seats stop us from throwing our beef jerky wrappers on the floor or leaving our unfolded laundry in the trunk for, fuck, eight days now, because we have been busy. We cannot be stopped from looking with pity upon the world's sorry inhabitants, they unblessed by our charms, unchallenged by our trials, unscarred and thus weak, gelatinous."

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a very self-conscious, pop-culture laden explanation of the irony in suffering an unthinkable blow only to discover you possess the fortitude to laugh at it. Eggers is genuinely scared that he will not raise Toph right, that his little brother will grow up to love uniforms and guns. He worries that he will catch Toph under the covers reading by flashlight Chicken Soup for the Prepubescent Soul. Hanging ominously between the lines about staged violent spankings meant to scare the neighbors and Eggers' threats to pick up single mothers at Toph's school open house are the author's memories of the way his father smacked him and the realization he was never given a choice about forfeiting the abandon of his 20s. Just when he thinks he has peace, death comes banging on his door like an unpaid landlord. One of his friends attempts suicide. Another suddenly dies of food poisoning. And his magazine Might folds.

Perhaps he's tired of being compared to David Foster Wallace. Maybe Eggers has had it up to here with The New York Review of Books and exhaustive debates on Salon about his book. But everyone is rightfully agreeing that he's a smart, observant, and tender new voice whose work may not need the hyperbolic title, but may deserve it anyway.


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