The title of Dave Eggers’s book is fair warning: it prepares the reader to put on a happy face. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes emulsioned with the kind of compliments and absurd little pronunciamentos that stretch credulity. ‘The force and energy of this book could power a train,’ apparently. Goodness knows what kind of vehicle you might be able to start up if you could harness the force and energy of Ulysses or King Lear – a giant Ariane V, powered by a 170-ton liquid-propellant rocket motor assisted by twin 270-ton solid-fuel boosters, perhaps. Forcing one’s way beyond the countdown of air-kisses and back-slappings and venturing on into the book itself, you’re hit on the very first page with a neat little riff on the usual formalities:
First published 2000 by Simon & Schuster, New York, a division of a larger and more powerful company called Viacom Inc., which is wealthier and more populous than 18 of the 50 states of America, all of Central America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled. That said, no matter how big such companies are, and how many things they own, or how much money they have or make or control, their influence over the daily lives and hearts of individuals, and thus, like 99 per cent of what is done by official people in cities like Washington, or Moscow, or São Paulo or Auckland, their effect on the short, fraught lives of human beings who limp around and sleep and dream of flying through bloodstreams, who love the smell of rubber cement and think of space travel while having intercourse, is very very small, and so hardly worth worrying about.
Bold, fizzy, reassuring and ingratiating – one might begin to recall the strains of the old Kid Ory tune, ‘Kiss My Ass’. One might also already be feeling rather overwhelmed and, with another 400-odd pages in sight, might even be considering some form of dismissal or riposte appropriate to a book so obviously in awe of its own virtuosity, a response along the lines of Sydney Smith’s remark on an essay by Henry Brougham: ‘It is long and vigorous, like the penis of a jackass.’
And yet amazingly, and defiantly, beyond its hyper-consciously clever preface, the book picks itself up, dusts itself down, and seems to surprise even itself by getting on with the serious business of telling a story. It’s not long before you realise that Eggers was probably addressing someone else at the beginning of the book – was in fact attending to that mad, insatiable phantom the Zeitgeist, which always demands undivided attention, particularly the attention of those brought up on CNN and MTV. Even on this point, though, Eggers is way ahead: the first of the ‘RULES AND SUGGESTIONS FOR ENJOYMENT OF THIS BOOK’ states that ‘there is no overwhelming need to read the preface’ and the ‘rules’ go on to advise that ‘the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with’ because ‘the book thereafter is kind of uneven.’
It’s the phrase ‘kind of’ here, both redundant and necessary, that indicates the book’s great strength. As anyone who has ever tried to achieve it knows – anyone who has written an e-mail, say, or had to deliver a prepared speech or presentation – it’s difficult to re-create the effect of voice on screen or on the page. And it’s difficult to make written language swing. Eggers’s numerous prefatory toots and triple-tonguings are a doddle by comparison: what’s really impressive is his ability to conjure up a fluent speaking voice. He uses all the tricks that one might expect, including directly addressing the reader, a few orthographic idiosyncrasies – dashes, ellipses, parentheses – and more than a sprinkling of that magic dust, bathos: ‘Can you not see what I represent? I am both a) martyred moraliser and b) amoral omnivore born of the suburban vacuum + idleness + television + Catholicism + alcoholism + violence; I am a freak in second-hand velour, a leper who uses L’Oréal Anti-Sticky Mega Gel.’
All the fascination of the rhythm and pace would be entirely wasted, of course, without a good melody, and Eggers has any number of these: the loss of his parents, both of whom died of cancer within five weeks of each other, left him at the age of 21 to bring up his eight-year-old brother Toph. After the funerals and the necessary arrangements, Eggers and Toph leave the Chicago suburbs and go to California to start a new life. As befits a good-looking, groovy twentysomething living in San Francisco, Eggers starts up a magazine, Might, ‘by and for us twentysomethings’, which attempts ‘to perfect a balance between being close to where things are happening, knowing the people involved and their patterns, while keeping our distance, an outsider’s mentality, even among other outsiders’. As befits an eight-year-old, Toph enrols in school. Between them they eat a lot of ground beef and grilled cheese, no spices (‘except oregano’), no vegetables (‘except carrots, celery, cucumbers, green beans and iceberg lettuce, which are all served raw and only raw’) and generally jerk around: ‘I am making our lives a music video, a game show on Nickelodeon – lots of quick cuts, crazy camera angles, fun, fun, fun! It’s a campaign of distraction and revisionist history – leaflets dropped behind enemy lines, fireworks, funny dances, magic tricks.’
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius purports to be an account of these activities and adventures, although there is no way of knowing how much of what we are being told is true. Not that it really matters – Eggers isn’t Binjamin Wilkomirski. For starters, he’s cuter. He knows very well that his story is a story and that he’s striking all the right contemporary chords. Indeed, he happily thrums through them in a summary of ‘the major themes of this book’: ‘THE UNSPOKEN MAGIC OF PARENTAL DISAPPEARANCE’, ‘THE TELLING THE WORLD OF SUFFERING AS MEANS OF FLUSHING OR AT LEAST DILUTING OF PAIN ASPECT’ etc. Wilkomirski’s problem was that he was Swiss, and straining to find an identity, but to the average American, self-invention seems to come as second nature, and is no reason for shame or misgivings. In another recent example of that pseudo-autobiographical mode in which Americans excel, The Tao of Muhammad Ali (1997), Davis Miller recalled a conversation with Ali:
‘I’ve wanted to write for years. Like you, when you threw your gold medal off the bridge, I threw my beeper in the river and quit my job so I could write.’
‘I never did that,’ he says.
‘Did what?’ I ask.
‘Never threw my medal off no bridge. Just lost it, that’s all.’
‘Maannn, that’s a story I made up. I know what it takes to sell a story.’
Eggers, too, knows what it takes – like Ali and Miller and every wannabe from Pottawattamie County, Iowa to Gary, Indiana. He knows how to talk things up.
There is a danger in this kind of boundless self-confidence. Eggers appears to be constantly challenging his own narcissism – Toph, for example, occasionally mutates into a brilliant Socratic adversary, biting back at Eggers’s false claims and representations – yet he cannot help but congratulate himself even on these underminings. Even self-recrimination – especially self-recrimination – can be an advertisement for the self. Eggers often gets caught up in complex arrangements and second-guessings which, like a 1970s prog-rock guitar solo, or the music of Ornette Coleman, last for ages and go nowhere:
So tell me something: This isn’t really a transcript of the interview, is it?
It’s not much like the actual interview at all, is it?
Not that much, no.
This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It’s a good device, though. Kind of a catch-all for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.
And the point of the anecdotes again?
And then he’s off into another 36 pages of loops, lacunae and japes: a kind of literary Tales from Topographical Oceans. These aren’t just purple patches, they’re whole quilts.
Eggers maintains that this gimmickry is ‘simply a device, a defence, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story’, and he may be right. What’s ultimately impressive about the book is not its half-assed PoMo comedy – which you can now find in virtually any novel of any genre, except possibly those published by Mills and Boon. Nor is it distinguished particularly for its skilful retelling of human tragedy and catastrophe – available these days in trade paperback memoirs commemorating virtually every skin disease, neurological disorder and variety of family breakdown known to man. What is really shocking and exciting is the book’s sheer rage. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is truly ferocious, like any work of genius. (Like, say, Muhammad Ali. Should he have taunted Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson in the way he did? No. But would he have been great if he hadn’t?) Of course people don’t like to admit this, but most literature is only ever a kind of goading or complaint or a two-fingered salute, a plea for what Eggers calls ‘some extra mother-fucking consideration’. Or as William Gass once attempted to explain it, rather more philosophically, in an interview with the Paris Review: ‘Getting even is one great reason for writing … But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.’
Justice: the American Dream. In 1844, when Emerson went to Boston to address the Mercantile Library Association on the subject of ‘The Young American’, he told his audience: ‘In every age of the world, there has been a leading nation, one of a more generous sentiment, whose eminent citizens were willing to stand for the interests of general justice and humanity, at the risk of being called, by the men of the moment, chimerical and fantastic. Which should be that nation but these States?’ He urged the model citizen ‘to succour the helpless and oppressed; always to throw himself on the side of weakness, of youth, of hope, on the liberal, on the expansive side, never on the defensive, the conserving, the timorous, the lock and bolt system.’ Eggers – self-reliant, transcendent, expansive – is Emerson’s ideal Young American. His work is certainly a form of unlocking:
How can these things be mine? Holding me responsible for keeping hidden this information is ridiculous. I was born into a town and a family and the town and the family happened to me. I own none of it. It is everyone’s. It is shareware. I like it, I like having been a part of it, I would kill or die to protect those who are part of it, but I do not claim exclusivity. Have it. Take it from me. Do with it what you will. Make it useful. This is like making electricity from dirt; it is almost too good to be believed, that we can make beauty from this stuff.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius does itself justice: it is a settling of accounts. And it is almost too good to be believed.