By Shelly Ridenour
MARCH 6, 2000:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Simon & Schuster) $23
"This was uncalled for."
That's the first line that greets readers of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," the recently released and much-hyped memoirs ("based on a true story," the cover reminds) of 29-year-old Dave Eggers. And indeed, the meat of the story is uncalled for, meaning, it's the kind of thing that just shouldn't happen.
Other reviews and profiles have labored over the facts, so let's just get them out of the way: Dave Eggers grew up in the cozy little northern suburb that is Lake Forest, son of a lawyer and a Montessori teacher, neighbor of Mr. T. But a funny thing happened on the way to Adulthood -- during Eggers' senior year at University of Illinois-Urbana, his parents died from cancer, mere weeks apart, leaving Eggers guardian for his 8-year-old brother, Toph. Along with their sister, the new family packed up everything the day after their mother's funeral and moved to San Francisco (he and Toph now reside in Brooklyn). The book recounts how Eggers has juggled all the realities of young adulthood -- a rollercoaster career (including co-founding the much-vaunted Might magazine), dating, watching one friend almost die in a tragic accident even as another flirts dramatically with taking his own life -- with the reality of de facto parenthood: getting his brother to school on time, worrying the babysitter's a murderer, reassuring skeptical landlords.
Lest you think, who the hell is this guy to write his life story before he's 30...
"I think you can be eighteen and publish memoirs," Eggers argues. "How many so-called novels are really fiction? 'Portrait of the Artist'? Hmm... 'This Side of Paradise'? No, not really. It was a story I wanted to tell, and I didn't want to wait until I was seventy. These people who are writing about the sixties now, how can that possibly be a good idea?"
And what was not uncalled for, despite Eggers' modesty, is the amazing voice with which he writes his story. "I've never even written a short story, just reviews and some magazine features," he explains. "I couldn't even picture doing a straight linear narrative." And, indeed, the book veers from soaring, imagined dialogues with his brother to a fake interview with a producer from "The Real World" (author David Foster Wallace calls it Eggers' "po-mo comic bits"). There is a stream-of-consciousness sequence that seems to be a bedside daydream of how his mother will die, but is in fact the actual account of what happened.
"It was hard to maintain some of the meta, gimmicky stuff -- it was hard to get stuff down in the first place," Eggers admits. "Like the scenes from Lake Forest at the end... "
I started "A.H.W.O.S.G." on a Wednesday and reached the chapter concerning Eggers' return to Lake Forest by the weekend. He recounts the story of returning to his hometown for a friend's wedding, and how he revisits his childhood home, his father's former haunts... and the funeral home that hosted services for his parents, and where he is unexpectedly presented with the ashes of his cremated mother, which he drives around with in his rental car for days, unsure what to do with them, before finally arriving at his mother's favorite spot on Lake Michigan.
"I open the canister... Inside is a bag of kitty litter, tied at the top... Someone switched the ashes with fucking kitty litter... Where is the ash, the ash like dust?... These are little rocks, pebbles, Grape-Nuts, in white and gray... I put my hand in the bag and grab a handful and it's so light!... I throw... Some spills. I should not spill. It's spilled, right there, by my left foot, about eight particles -- I'm stepping on them!... How expected, asshole! I lean over to pick up the particles but I already have a handful in the other hand and as I crouch down some of the other handful spills on my right side -- Jesus! Jesus fucking Christ! Why can I not do this right?"
By Sunday the book had eaten me alive, and I was, from a point of exhaustion, relieved to finish. "I barely got that down without losing my mind," Eggers says. "I wrote it, looked at it, and haven't seen it since."
Quimby's is packed, front to back, wall to wall -- it is a room full of messenger bags, pea coats, girls in black boots and knee-grazing skirts, and lots of dark, heavy-framed glasses. Though no one appears to be under 25, there are too many pairs of pigtails to count.
This is Eggers' ninth stop on his first reading tour, and he's here to talk up both the book and the new issue of McSweeney's, the quarterly literary journal he co-edits -- an impressive, beautifully done boxed set of individually bound works by Denis Johnson, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem and others. How the journal ended up with Johnson's play is a great story in itself: McSweeney's doesn't pay contributors, but Johnson wanted to be compensated. Somehow, it was divined that Johnson needed a guesthouse built, so Eggers will spend his spring hammering away in Idaho. It's not your typical reading -- McSweeney's contributor Neal Pollack serves as an opening act, the Quimby's people (who went out and bought a karaoke machine to serve as a sound system for the event) put an arena-rock echo effect on Eggers' voice, and a woman in the audience comes up to act out the part of Eggers' younger brother -- including singing Journey's "Any Way You Want It," despite not knowing the tune at all.
Someone asks, of course, how Toph is doing. Eggers responds, of course, with just the kind of shaggy-dog story he tells in the book. "He's into fast cars, drugs. He's living in a commune in Northern California, dating a twenty-six-year-old-woman -- he's seventeen. If anyone hears from him, tell him I'd like him home for Christmas."
Later, we have a more revealing conversation about the younger brother he's raised for nine years now. "Toph is the first guy to read everything. He's a sophisticated, voracious reader. With the imagined conversations, I expected him to roll his eyes and say, 'What is this shit?' But he never blurred the line between structural devices and what was being said about him," Eggers says. "This is a kid who loves Donald Barthelme, so he's hard to surprise on a formal level."
Eggers tells the Quimby's crowd how the sale of the book's international rights ("It's going to be translated into Finnish -- and I have to wonder if it's going to make sense at all.") is providing him the opportunity to at last pay McSweeney's writers and to publish books.
The journal is also sponsoring a contest, a delightful little act of subversion against Amazon.com, where participants (winners receive a McSweeney's subscription) are asked to review Eggers' book in the Customer Review section, meeting the following criteria:
"The review rates the book with five stars. The review betrays the fact that the reviewer has not read the book. The reviewer has other things on his or her mind, or is confused."
For example, "Brilliant, spot-on adaptation of those great Dr. Science films that Bell Labs put out back in the fifties"; and, "To read of the struggles of the stout-hearted West Highland Terrier, Genius, (a former Westminster Best of Show!) from Genius' POV makes the tragedy of it all alarmingly immediate... "
"Parents of friends of mine are really upset, like some sacred trust has been violated," Eggers shrugs.
Meanwhile, real reviews have been staggeringly enthusiastic.
From Entertainment Weekly: "... his funny, furious insights into family tragedy reflect the complexity of emotion in irony done right."
From author David Sedaris: "The force and energy of this book could power a train."
From The Village Voice Literary Supplement: "By eschewing the temptations of cynicism, slackerdom, and navel-gazing, Eggers may end up becoming something he richly deserves and probably does not aspire to be: the voice of a generation."
So does he read the reviews?
"I read the ones I hear are good, that friends tell me to read. There's one bad review I know of, and I won't read it."
And then there are the reviews that Eggers read, but wishes he hadn't.
"I was interviewed for a newspaper, and the writer was very cool, but her editor wanted a more negative slant -- he kept asking, 'How do we know anything he says is real?'" he says. "The weird thing is, I haven't done anything fake (like Might's infamous Adam Rich death hoax) in six years. But people are afraid of being out-hipped more than anything."
During the reading's question-and-answer session, a man asks what it's like to be interviewed by the likes of Terry Gross and Charlie Rose, and refers to Eggers as "literati." Eggers hems and haws and eventually asks the guy to come to the front and see for himself. "Time has slowed down to a stand-still. I don't know what to say... It's um... weird."
"Weird is a good word," Eggers says the next day, sitting on a rocky inlet of Lake Michigan. "I've had a cold for weeks and, as unbelievable as this sounds, my senses are a little dulled. After a while, nothing's surprising. It's been a long time since anything surprised me."
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