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The Boston Phoenix Where's the Iron?

Dave Eggers's clown suit

By William Corbett

APRIL 3, 2000: 

A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Simon & Schuster), 375 pages, $23

I finished Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius feeling so ambivalent about the book that the sharp yes/no divide in my mind probably is a recommendation to read it. If, that is, you are capable of enjoying a book that irritates you to distraction. In the end, I believe Eggers has not written the book that his publishers think he has, and that he purposefully undermined the book he could have written. You might think I am about to take Eggers to task for not writing the book I wanted him to write. This is exactly what I will do.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius reached me without its dust jacket. Thus I saw stamped on the book's cover the mottos I certainly would have otherwise missed: "MEMORY/IS NOT A CURE" and, below it, "QUIET HAS ITS OWN/SET OF PROBLEMS." I do not think I have ever seen a book so decorated. The book's third page also has a motto: "THIS WAS/UNCALLED FOR." It was clear that Eggers has an unorthodox strategy in mind, and I thought these must be moves toward the "anti-memoir" the Simon & Schuster publicity department says he has written. On the copyright page, he has a long-winded sentence explaining that though Simon & Schuster is part of a large and powerful company, it has so little effect on our lives that we need not be concerned. This seems cute, and when followed by a brief physical and sexual-orientation description of Eggers, it seems too cute for words. Then comes a note in which Eggers tells the reader that though some of what follows is fiction, he could not "conceive of making up a story or characters" because "it felt like driving a car in a clown suit."

At this point, with 370-some pages still before me, I wondered whether Eggers hadn't already, smirkingly, put on the clown suit. I also thought of the poet Charles Olson's question "Where is the iron in irony?" I had no problem with the prospect of clowning, but Olson's question gave me pause. I think he meant that irony is soft, easy, and somehow fake. (The word has a Greek root that means "feigned ignorance.") Irony in life and art has been a dominant tone over the past few decades. What I discovered as I began Eggers's prefatory "RULES AND SUGGESTIONS/FOR ENJOYMENT OF THIS BOOK" is that he does indeed have irony on the tip of his pen, and it doesn't stop with the book's title. I quickly tired of the tone; after a page or two I decided to take his advice about there being "no overwhelming need to read the preface" and go directly to his story.

From the first words, "Through the small bathroom window . . . ," to the book's last "finally," Eggers has written exactly the sort of book his publishers say he has not, "a sentimental memoir about loss and regrowth." The garnish he serves it up with emphasizes the irony, but neither makes for an "anti-memoir." This phrase is hype and nonsense. It may be what Eggers thought he was up to, but his sentences, even those twisted with a wisecracking Salingeresque irony, say different.

His story could not be simpler or more dramatic. Eggers's parents died within weeks of each other, leaving him at 21 both an orphan and a father to his eight-year-old brother, Toph. They move from suburban Chicago to Berkeley, where Eggers starts a magazine and the confusions and pleasures of their oddly configured two-person family ensue. Eggers tells this story almost exclusively in the present tense, communicating the drive to outrun despair while keeping the despair and bewilderment present. Early on his prose has an affectless affect, a deadpan grayness that draws one into the care for his dying mother and his father's sudden death. (They are stricken with unrelated cancers.) Here and throughout, Eggers as stylist is heir to Stephen Crane, Hemingway, Salinger, and, I guess, though I have only dipped into him, David Foster Wallace. Although Eggers's irony irked me, it did not spoil the power of his sentiment. There is real feeling in this book, but real feeling distrusted, as if pain itself must be false. It is surely the method of this distrust, Eggers's irony, that makes me so ambivalent about his book. I guess I discovered while reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that Olson was right, that irony is a weak trump and often sentimental itself.

Why call this book an "anti-memoir?" Eggers is certainly self-conscious about the story he has to tell, but his doubts about the form, and his desires to use it in his own peculiar way, seem natural to the memoirist. What puts me off about the term and his approach to memoir is that it asks for the reader's sympathy. He quotes the poet Robert Lowell, "Why not just write what happened?", only to say that this and all other epigrams ought to be removed. They haven't been, but they ought to be, and the rest of Eggers's scaffolding ought to come down as well. All that stuff is the clown suit he says he does not want to wear. Why not just tell the story, drive the car, and let the chips fall where they may? They always do in any case.


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