Anyone with an English degree these days knows Dave Eggers. If it were an industry (not the selling of books, but the proliferation of reading), he would have had a big hand in it. His name goes around with those who give TED talks. The famous-in-some-circles. The “oh-yeah-that-guy”.
But I had never read his, arguably, most famous work. If it’s not (and that might belong to What is the What? though I doubt it0, it’s at least the one that made him famous. Lines get tossed around A Heartbreaking Work like “voice of his generation” and that may be so. I am probably the generation after the Eggers generation, and I wouldn’t say his memoir speaks to my cultural paradigm enough to be the voice.
When you start surrounding books with such colossus praise, it’s hard to separate that from the reading itself. I struggled with that as I read, what I found to be a fairly easy read. And I can’t imagine an easy read being so crucial to a generation’s literary advancement or cultural trophy.
I don’t mean easy read to have anything to do with the subject material. Certainly that is dense and serious. Not the dying of his parents (which, of course, is), but the weight of seriousness in asking an older brother to assume the role of parent. That’s the true weight of Eggers book here, and true weight of the character’s personal work. His mourning is chocked into massive responsibility.
I mean easy read in the sense that Eggers, as author, doesn’t say much page by page. He spends so much time in his head that words, sentences, paragraphs are skippable, only to find that not much has really gone anywhere. This is the course of many first-person, present-tense memoirs. So. many. thoughts. And anyone who has thoughts (all of us) knows what an extraordinary percentage are not extraordinary. They are thoughts. About food, sex, money, work, and on and on and on.
In establishing this voice, we get a whole lot of fluff as well. And Eggers does not shy away from this (see 30-page long dedication section). Instead of the exploration of Toph – arguably the book’s most dynamic and capable literary character — we get the meanderings of a 20-something who has to grow up too fast. By the end, the book does not add too much growth to that. We end up much where we were at — still ungrounded by the massive growth happening of losing both parents.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. Eggers is a terrific writer (which has sustained his career no doubt), and some passages are truly remarkable pieces of writing (particularly this take on San Francisco in the 90s). I, myself, admit to going in with too high of expectations. I found myself held back by the memoir structure, unenthused with Eggers literary approaches (the main event of the book is a 50-or-so-page long interview with Eggers trying to get on MTV’s The Real World), and wanting so much more from a rich (in the literary sense) situation.
It’s hard too to find writers with Eggers innate sense of literary humor. If there’s one piece of the book I’d hold strong it is with its ability to make you laugh. And most of the time that’s sad-laugh — perhaps one of the hardest laughs to get. It’s not a sympathy laugh because the guy’s parents just died, he really is funny and engaging in that. For those looking to feel both down and inspired with a memoir — this one has it. For those looking for those from any piece of reading, there are other pieces of writing that do this with more mastery.
For some readers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius might just fit its title. It has elements of each. I can see it. I came away without reaching those levels, but certainly feeling something. Most of all, the feeling was a close(r)ness to Eggers himself, no doubt one reason he became a figure instead of just an author’s name. I’m just a little late to the party.