A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

To Be Real
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 22 2000 1:50 PM

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Jodi, I agree with you that this is a very fine book (and a truly, truly remarkable first book). I'm deeply sympathetic to Eggers' refusnik purity. But I could do without some of the book's rather self-congratulatory aspects; and the relentless knowingness (self-styled) about everything can become stifling. I'll readily plead guilty to the same charge; I claim only to be more ... knowing about it. In Hearthbreaking, Eggers comes tantalizingly close to something genuinely brave and great: a non-mawkish account of intense personal experience unmediated by generational claptrap, "commodification of dissent" voguishness, or other distractions of the moment. This is the source of the excitement about this book: It deigns to be real.

Advertisement

The reflexivity seems to be symptomatic of another problem endemic to the 30ish memoir genre: Lack of meaningful distance. Eggers allows us to see him (and I don't believe I'm overstating this) as terminally sanctimonious, self-centered, judgmental, dick-obsessed. (Actually, the sex passages here are as good as anything since early Roth; they're among the most honest writing in the book.) There's a chilling scene in which Eggers--styling in the Buford T. Pusser fashion--frog-marches some more-or-less harmless Mexicans he suspects of stealing his wallet across a San Francisco beach while hinting darkly that he will get them deported if they do not cough up the wallet (it turns out later he just left it at home). This is a remarkably raw moment and Eggers doesn't spare himself in the slightest. He is one angry motherfucker. He's convinced his unique traumas need to be repaid by society (and Mexicans and fabulous babes) forevermore. One expects the book to end with him older, wiser, the act of writing this memoir allowing him a passage out. But the book ends on a equally dark, even messianic note (another odd, to-date largely ignored subtheme in this book), as Eggers presents himself as a lord avenger for a generation (the "lattice") that has failed to seize life with his desired level of fire and passion.

The perspective is unclear. Is Eggers commenting on himself or does he really believe this stuff? Having lost a parent at precisely the same age Eggers lost his (though, I hasten to point out, not two parents, and there was no brother to bring up), I identified closely with his homicidal tendencies toward those horrid people who have the gall to live lightly, who fail to understand our time on earth as a kind of heroic struggle marked by profound loss and horror, but also by darkly humorous, meaningful, and always literary episodes. Does he still believe this? I think the confusion explains the book's endless preface and lengthy fake MTV Real World interview. Eggers doesn't know whether to situate himself inside or outside his narrative. He ends up disappearing ever further up his own fundament.

That he has managed to emerge from said dark depths with such a fine piece of writing is a small miracle.

And I really am sorry for the previous metaphor.

leftyesspacer/Slate247/000214_Genius.jpghttp://img.slate.com/mediafalseA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers20111

21
103158AMFridayJanJanuary101/21/2011 3:31:58 PM63431202718532383620111
21
103158AMFridayJanJanuary101/21/2011 3:31:58 PM634312027185323836
20111
21
103158AMFridayJanJanuary101/21/2011 3:31:58 PM634312027185323836
Pfalse200110
19
31107AMFridayOctOctober310/19/2001 7:11:07 AM631390578670000000
200110
19
31107AMFridayOctOctober310/19/2001 7:11:07 AM631390578670000000
This week, a discussion of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (click here to read an excerpt and here to buy it). Michael Hirschorn is a founder of Powerful Media, which this spring will launch a Web-based news, analysis, and data service for the entertainment and media businesses. Jodi Kantor edits Slate's “Diary,” “Breakfast Table,” “Book Club,” and “Dialogue” features.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.