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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers
London 2000

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When Dave Eggers was twenty-one, his parents died of cancer within five weeks of one another, leaving Eggers as guardian of his eight-year-old brother Toph. AHWOSG tells the story of his parents’ deaths and Eggers’s efforts to balance the responsibilities of parenthood with his comfortably faux-bohemian life on the edges of nineties media culture (Eggers went on to edit the short-lived satirical magazine Might and the lavishly glib literary quarterly McSweeney’s). At its most successful, the book describes in detail the death of his mother from stomach cancer and the altogether vaguer demise of his father from lung cancer (a death no less affecting for appearing in the book as little more than a haze of cigarette smoke and a series of sudden falls).

Eggers is neatly eloquent on the vertigo of the newly-orphaned almost-adult. There are some sedulous descriptions here of the sense of fuddled doom that overtakes anybody in Eggers’s position: the dark conviction that parental death is only the beginning, that this unthinkable disaster will surely be followed swiftly by unimaginable catastrophe, the whole family plunging into illness and horror. It’s a terror that’s accompanied, however, by a liberating weightlessness: if the ground of one’s own mortality comes up to meet one at an alarming rate, there’s also quite a view from orphanhood’s precipitous (and weirdly public) height. A giddy landscape of possibility fades to an oddly optimistic horizon; for Eggers, the figure on that horizon is his kid brother, whose welfare, happiness and education form the central project of the author’s twenties. Some of the best of Eggers’s writing is in his relationship with Toph, in his rendering of the twin urges toward protection and liberation, domestic isolation and elaborate performance of the roles of tragic orphan heroes. It’s also here, though, that the book’s narrative starts to drift on currents of self-reference, the brothers’ dialogue veering into commentary on the ethics and artifice of the book and Toph’s place in his brother’s literary reworking of their predicament.

In fact, we’ve already been alerted to the waywardness of Eggers’s narrative by a lengthy series of quibbles and qualifications that starts on the book’s cover. AHWOSG, we’re told, is ‘based on a true story’. An intricate web of prefatory material (which ambitiously extends to the publication and copyright information following the title page and even to a couple of embossed epigrams awaiting the reader who removes the dust jacket) deliberately contradicts itself, claiming varying degrees of that awkwardly-named artifice, ‘fictionalization’.

If Eggers has written a memoir, it’s a memoir that substantially rewrites what the French critic Philippe Lejeune calls ‘le pacte autobiographique‘, the agreement according to which a reader accepts that the individual who writes ‘I’ in the text is the same person whose name appears on the title page. The apparatus that frames AHWOSG adds some wittily baroque clauses to that agreement. As Eggers puts it, ‘See, I like the scaffolding. I like the scaffolding as much as I like the building. Especially if that scaffolding is beautiful, in its way.’ Which it is, in a way. But maybe not in all the complex ways Eggers wants it to be, and not at all in the ways we might want if we want of AHWOSG something more than an affecting tale neatly framed.

If Eggers has written a novel, it’s a novel that returns, like much of the best recent American fiction, to a mode that for the last couple of decades seemed to have been ousted by an undemanding sub-Carver realism and just the kind of memoirist sincerity that Eggers wants to avoid. The self-consciousness exhibited by the likes of John Barth, Donald Barthelme and William Gass has resurfaced in the luminous oddity of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String, in Mark Danielewski’s extravagantly annotated House of Leaves and, most obviously from the perspective of Eggers’s writing, in the works of David Foster Wallace. Where Eggers, however, fails to match this company, is in the unfortunate gulf that opens between the charming tricksiness of his framing devices and the more or less unreflected realism of the main body of the book. Apart from those (ultimately, pretty heavy-handed) moments when Eggers’s friends and family lean over the frame to discuss the picture, much of AHWOSG reads like it was written in response to a creative writing teacher’s demand for less metafictional frippery and a lot more authenticity.

Whatever the reason for Eggers’s failure of nerve here, the result is a frictionless slide from tragedy to trivia, from a book that initially looks like it might startle with its emotional and rhetorical verve, to a memoir much like any other. Which is to say: not reprehensible per se, but, in terms of the history of autobiography and early parental death, no De Quincey, no Nabokov and no Roland Barthes. At the beginning of Barthes’s exquisite self-portrait, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, we read the following advice: ‘It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.’ Eggers’s book, unfortunately, is only half a novel. At the end of the book, he and Toph play frisbee on the beach, wowing onlookers with their audacious control and aerobatic panache. It’s a nice metaphor for the author’s efforts to keep airborne a version of his decimated family, but the book, regrettably, is already lodged in the sand.

Reviewed by Brian Dillon


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