Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Boy Raises Man

Dave Eggers and His Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

By Stuart Wade

MARCH 6, 2000: 

1. Know This About Dave Eggers. He:

• Grew up in suburban Chicago and attended the University of Illinois;

•Quit school at 21 and moved to San Francisco after both of his parents died within five weeks of each other;

• Assumed the role of father to his kid brother, Toph, then eight years old (now 16), the pair now residing in Park Slope, Brooklyn (they have another brother, Bill, based in Austin);

• Co-founded now-defunct Might magazine (best-remembered for its bogus post-mortem of Eight is Enough star Adam Rich, who is still very much alive), and created quirky, acclaimed anti-magazine McSweeney's;

• Has written a highly praised memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $23) -- from which he forced his publisher to remove the subtitle "A Memoir" -- and that deconstructs the memoir form even as it exploits the Eggers family's personal tragedy;

• Can boast jacket blurbs, for said book, contributed by several famous Davids, including New Yorker editor David Remnick, fiendishly intelligent writer David Foster Wallace, and humorist David Sedaris;

• Has a goofy acronym for his book, A.H.W.O.S.G.;

• Is currently writing a novel.

2. Hear His Terrible, but Wise, and Yes, Often Hilarious, Story: Eggers' mother died of stomach cancer after a long battle, his father of lung cancer after a brief one. In the book, which retains much of McSweeney's retrofit intelligence despite the obvious tragedies at hand, Eggers dismantles not only memoir literary convention, but also the appalling, American tradition of the mediagenic "survivor" strolling pensively to a gravesite as TV cameras roll. Eggers is honest about all of it: his pain, his acute self-awareness, even the exhilaration of having been cast out, an orphan, amidst descriptions of himself and Toph playing beach Frisbee; staging "belt-whippings" intended to shock neighbors; of Dave trying to go on dates; of being a quasi-parent among the mothers and fathers of Toph's schoolmates. And while he's busy providing the book's many sly asides -- such as an in-depth listing of menu items the brothers cook in their often filthy apartment -- time and again, the author illustrates the powerful bond the boys share, and explains precisely why he and Toph feel bulletproof, chosen, and owed by society.

3. Admire as Mr. Eggers Redefines "Margins": What is that page called before the dedication page of a book? The one that contains the copyright information and disclaimers about "persons living or dead"? Frontmatter? Frontispiece? Living or dead guy page? Do not fail to read this page, because it -- with its hidden, jokey text inserts in small print ("all events described herein actually happened, though on occasion the author has taken certain, very small, liberties with chronology, because that is his right as an American") and despite not technically even being part of the book that is to follow -- illustrates what's to come, what the author does better than anybody. He does a little dance in the margins.

4. Laugh Heartily as Our Hero Adds Levity With Witty Asides: Not only does the book include "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book" ("Skip the table of contents if you're short of time"); not only does it include a special fictional offer the author says is quite serious -- send him your copy of the book and he'll send you a floppy disk containing the entire digital manuscript, but with all names and locations changed; not only does A.H.W.O.S.G. include a 20-plus-page set of acknowledgements (e.g., "the author acknowledges the brave men and women serving in the United States Air Force") and the actual, working telephone numbers of three of the author's former girlfriends; but also, superheroes and superhero imagery figure prominently throughout. And hey, who doesn't love superheroes?

5. Please Enjoy This Original Eggers Drawing:

6. Witness Mr. E's Pyrotechnic Prose: Ignore, if you must, the book's occasionally intrusive technical innovation. Go beyond the first moment where a slice of dialogue actually breaks out of authentic-sounding conversation between the author and his brother -- actually lifting right off the page, twisting and metastasizing right before your eyes -- and A.H.W.O.S.G. will still make you laugh and think, all while you're being gut-punched with grim descriptions of losing parents far too soon, of struggling to assume the role of parent, yet still somehow maintaining your own identity as a single person in your 20s:

"We are always late, always half-done. All school forms need to be sent to me twice, and I have to hand them in late. Bills are paid in ninety days minimum. ... Our relationship, at least in terms of its terms and its rules, is wonderfully flexible. He has to do certain things for me because I am his parent, and I have to do certain things for him. Of course, when I am called upon to do something I don't want to do, I do not have to do it, because I am not, actually, his parent. When something doesn't get done, we both shrug, because technically, neither of us is responsible, being just these two guys, brothers maybe, but we hardly even look alike, making duty even more questionable. ... It is an unsaid mission of mine ... to keep things moving, to entertain the boy, to keep him on his toes. ... There is a voice inside me, a very excited, chirpy voice, that urges me to keep things merry, madcap even, the mood buoyant. ... It's a campaign of distraction and revisionist history-leaflets dropped behind enemy lines, fireworks, funny dances, magic tricks."

7. Pause to Ponder Whether the Author Is Trying to Have It Both Ways: Yes, A.H.W.O.S.G. often sidesteps grief and even undermines its critics by slyly layering the self-deprecation. In Eggers' hands, however, it works. (Gape in Horror at the true details of the author's ill-fated tryout for MTV's The Real World, San Francisco cast. Experience immeasurable relief, as our hero fails to earn the opportunity to burn himself into America's cerebral cortex as the SF cast's Tragic Guy -- as the White Dude Other Than Puck.) In these often humiliating asides regarding his own selfishness, depravity, or paranoia, Eggers remains genuine. Even his line-item breakdown of Simon & Schuster's six-figure advance, given for him to exploit his own parents' deaths, is but one of numerous moments pointing to a groundbreaking use of self-awareness and irony in memoir.

8. Treat Yourself by Reading: McSweeney's, the quarterly (with a companion Web site at www.mcsweeneys.net) that calls itself a "repository of odd things one could never shoehorn into a mainstream periodical, and might be too quirky for other journals."

9. Know This at Last: Eggers is a gracious and funny person who loves working into the wee hours and has been known to send e-mail messages after 3 a.m. To one such recent afterhours query, the author responds:

Austin Chronicle: Can you think of a question you'd like to be asked?

Dave Eggers: I honestly don't know why no one asks about my career as a Hollywood make-up artist. After all, I did spend 12 years doing that, after my stint in Korea, and I won quite a few honors for my work, including the R. Thalstein Award for Special Achievement in Miniseries Make-Up. But no one wants to talk about any of that. You know, I think it's indicative of the prejudices people have against Hollywood make-up artists. It kind of sickens me. I mean, when will we stop and realize that we're all people, even if some of us are ugly and malformed, and some of us are at the cutting edge of Hollywood make-up artistry?

AC: Is writing a heartbreaking work of staggering genius more difficult than doing publicity interviews?

DE: Doing interviews, obviously, gets old. When doing interviews gets old, you stop making sense and you start doing things like I just did above, just to entertain yourself. But this, in Austin, will be my last interview and my last reading, so for that I'm happy. Then I can go back to the ER and get back to what I should be doing -- saving lives.

AC: Can you tell us what the novel you are now writing is about?

DE: The novel will include these parts:

  • A gray whale who works in the Bronx, at the Social Security office
  • A group of 100 children attached by long filaments of skin
  • Planks with nails hammered through them
  • Mexican water taxis
  • Monogamy
  • Talking trees, and
  • The sounds your ears hear when underwater.

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