Book Review: “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”

A critic’s darling, a national bestseller, winner of a plethora of book awards (I’m sure, though my politico fact checkers have yet to comment on this unverified claim), a not-quite heartbreaking work of perhaps some form of genius—and yet at the heart of it all I get the sense that Dave Eggers is mocking both us and himself throughout the entire majestic, (“virtuosic” as the New York Times reviewer called it) overwhelming, and at-times-almost-unreadable book.

It is a memoir. A memoir that the author states is supposed to read like a work of fiction but in fact reads like a memoir. It is the history of Dave Eggers’ life up to, roughly, age 27. Eggers’ parents both died, both from cancer, though different kinds, when Dave was 21—within just a few months of each other. He then became responsible for caring for his seven year old younger brother. They moved from Chicago to San Francisco, where the bulk of the story takes place. This backdrop provides the exposition and the setting, both plot-wise and psychologically, for the rest of the novel. The story continues into Eggers’ attempt, alongside a number of his high school friends, to start a satirical magazine called Might that will launch them to fame. The book incorporates a number of different writing styles, including a mini-play, an interview, a few interspersed lists, and one very short musical interlude.

For me, the two crucial questions of the book are: (1) To what extent is Eggers actually laughing at us for marveling at his heartbreaking work of staggering genius; and (2) to what extent is Eggers earnestly, desperately, heartbreakingly, seeking our approval for his work, for his life?

Take for example the first piece of writing we see from the author’s own hand: his biography, accompanied by a nice, bitter, angsty looking picture of himself. He is accompanied by two very large dogs and has some sort of bird perched on his shoulder. The last line of the biography is “They [the author and his brother] have no pets.” Sarcasm? Humor? Trickery? A mockery of the stereotypical picture of an author in some sort of familiar setting and/or accompanied by a pet (usually a dog) of some kind? Why would Eggers seek out two dogs and a bird for his authorial photograph only to accompany them with the disclaimer that they are not his? Is this a joke? A statement of some kind? My best guess (which I hope I can support with further examples down the line) is that this is the preface for the overall tone of the book: Eggers is parodying himself, his life, and all of those semi-stupid readers idiotic enough to grant him some sort of fame. Because in fact what Eggers wanted all along (as he writes frequently in the book) is fame, power, and recognition without being seen as fame-seeking, power-seeking, or anything superficial enough to want to be famous for the sake of being famous.

Might magazine, which Eggers and his friends attempted to start from the ground up in San Francisco in their 20s, provides the clearest example of this ambition-less-ambition. “…explaining our plans [for the magazine], vaguely conveying our hopes, doing the best we could to articulate the fact that we wanted to be successful without being seen as successful-successful […] wanted to conquer the world in a way that no one would be able to tell that that’s what we wanted” (414).

Even so, he mocks himself, his drama, his belief in his own life and his mission:

“’We try to convince people that we’re a lifestyle magazine.

‘See, we’re talking here about a style of life.’


‘Get it? Not lifestyle like lifestyle. Life. Style. A style of life.’


‘A style. Of life.’” (175)

It’s all a joke, right? Obviously the person to whom Eggers (or one of his friends) is describing the difference between ‘lifestyle’ and ‘style of life’ is confused, or humoring the describer, not buying into the difference. Which is good, because Eggers makes it clear at the beginning that it’s a false distinction anyway: “We try to convince people we’re a lifestyle magazine,” as opposed to “a style of life magazine.”

It’s like a ritual self-sacrifice. He is demanding our attention, putting himself up there on the stage to be eviscerated, criticized, acting like he expects to be torn apart, and then when the crowd goes wild and cries and cheers and crowns him with laurels he just sits back and laughs at the whole thing. He even talks about this.

In the preface, Eggers discusses the “major themes of the book,” (there are twenty-one cited) writing that one of them is “the memoir as act of self-destruction”. Later, in his ill-fated audition for the show The Real World (an audition which actually happened, though Eggers fictionalizes it to a large extent), he cries, he pleads, he begs:

“I will bleed if they [the audience] will love. Let me try. Let me prove. I will pluck my hair, will remove my skin, I will stand before you feeble and shivering. I will open a vein, an artery. Pass me over at your peril!”

He begs to be the sacrificial lamb, like Issac smiling at his father under the knife. When the television moguls refused to sacrifice him atop the show, he decided to publish a book instead.

After he is passed over for The Real World, Eggers and his friends spend some time with the man, Judd, who got his place instead. When Judd comes to visit, Eggers walks a delicate line: “While we must relate to Judd, mano a mano … Moodie and I must also try to act cooler than Judd, because we have to make clear that we are not the sorts of people who would be on The Real World—or even try out for it!—in the first place.” They try to make it clear that they are “stars who far outshine this dowdy Judd person—we the brilliant ringed planets, he just a tiny, cold moon.” They are too good for fame, even while they desperately seek it, too good for materialism, even while they crave it.

And yet, despite my semi-evisceration, I sense that Eggers is incredibly earnest in his desire for … well, for what? For attention? For recognition? To have his story told? No, I think perhaps none of the above, or at least not completely. Again, in his (fictionalized) interview on The Real World, he sums it up perfectly. His interviewer asks, “Why do you want to share your suffering?” and his response is: “By sharing it I will dilute it.” By releasing his pain, by becoming the sacrificial lamb, by allowing every reader a voyeuristic glimpse into his deepest psyche, Eggers can release his suffering and free himself from it.

Then there is the not-insignificant matter of his parents’ death, which is a major haunting theme throughout the book, and which throws a much more serious light on all of the egotism that I have chosen to focus on. The sudden death of his parents, the burden of being thrust into a parental role at age 21—these things heighten and deepen our experience of the book, and I do not mean to cheapen them in any way. I do believe, however, that just because he has been the victim of tragic circumstances does not mean that we as readers can grant him a free pass and let his book slip by, reveling in and marveling at it, without examining and criticizing it.

The book, of course, is far, far deeper than this basic overview. I have merely chosen to highlight what I’ve found to be its crux. I cannot yet decide whether or not I ought to take it seriously as a work of meaningful literature or as a semi-satirical work whose author, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, is laughing at the way his onlookers fall for his ploy. (I urge all my readers, however few they may be, to read this book and weigh in on this question.) It is rife with pain and happiness, humor and bitterness, and ultimately full of humanity. I fail to see how anyone could not see a part of him or herself reflected in the mirror of Eggers’ writing. Perhaps that is the truly masterful stroke of his—to lay bare his own chest, to self-flagellate and to self-destruct, that we readers might become more complete and more knowledgeable as we progress through our own earnest, poignant, meaningless little lives.

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