By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
There's something missing from Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Something's been overlooked, even amidst a massive publishing industry buzz that's scrutinized Eggers' every word, every media connection -- every italicized interjection -- that it seems the book should have: a typeface note.
By Dave Eggers
Simon & Schuster, 375 pp., $23
Smarter Feller Archive
Dave Egger's cartoon appeared in SF Weekly from 11/6/96 - 8/20/97
Modern Humorist Presents the Publishing Phenomenon of the Year
An excerpt from Harry Potter and the Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by J.R. Eggers
After all, a typeface note is a Dave Eggers sort of thing. With his journal McSweeney's -- and before that Might -- he's reveled in tinkering with the minutiae of publishing, from the table of contents page of Might ("Pages 76-84: Get this: a feature about all-guy bands!") to the copyright page of Genius, on which he sees fit to include details about his height, weight, and sexual orientation. Agate type has never had it so good, and it's not hard to imagine that Eggers must have something to say about Caslon, Bodoni, and Times New Royal. "The truth is in the details" isn't just a cliché in his work -- it's gospel.
When Eggers is good, he can make details into real art. And, believe it or not, once upon a time Eggers wasn't all that great. Back in 1992, he did a political cartoon for SF Weekly (That SF Weekly? Yes!) called Swell that was usually cringe-worthy in its squishy bleeding-heartisms. Eventually, though, the strip evolved into Smart Feller (later Smarter Feller), which started out by taking all of San Francisco's easy targets -- Frank Jordan, hippies, Journey, the Examiner Magazine, guys with goatees -- and napalming them. For weeks Eggers produced brilliant strips on the guy in the Gold Club ads, and by the time he was done, Smarter Feller was a surreal commentary on nothing in particular, a stick-figure Seinfeld whose main character was a talking handbag. Like a lot of Eggers' projects, it was irreverent, simple, silly, often self-indulgent, and inspired by a youthful snottiness. Hey, what do you expect from a college-educated guy in his 20s?
Well, that's the main question Genius is forced to answer. "[T]he lives of people in their early twenties ... are very difficult to make interesting," Eggers confesses in the book's introduction, knowing what he's in for (oh, how he knows -- more on that later). Roughly speaking, the book is a slightly fictionalized memoir of how Eggers spent his 20s in the Bay Area. After both his parents died of cancer within weeks of each other, Eggers and his younger brother Toph left their home in Lake Forest, an affluent Chicago suburb, and came here, forcing Eggers to play two roles: Smart Guy Making His Way in the World, and Parent.
The latter role is the subject of some of Eggers' best writing, and on this point the rave reviews and publishing buzz are almost unimpeachably dead-on: The first hundred or so pages of Genius, which focus on the death of Eggers' parents and his first Bay Area days with Toph, are passionate, funny, brilliant, evocative, insightful, emotionally relentless, and just plain damn good writing. Conveying anguish without talking about how anguished he is, Eggers dares to find the humor -- or at least the absurdity -- in his predicament. The opening section obsesses almost joyfully over small somber details like how light his mother is when he carries her, and enthuses over the fun he has with Toph, which mainly involves frisbees and making dishes like "The Mexican-Italian War" (ground beef and spaghetti sauce, served in tortillas). It's enough to make you forgive his continuous references to french fries as "potatoes, served in the French manner."
After that, the book is kind of uneven. "The book thereafter is kind of uneven," Eggers writes in the introduction. While it's nice he's willing to confess to this, his confession doesn't excuse him. In writing about his Might days and his attempt to get onto the San Francisco edition of MTV's The Real World, he persistently invades his text with commentaries on his own state of living. "Instead of lamenting the end of unmediated experience," he writes in a section in which a friend overdoses and gets his stomach pumped, "I will celebrate it, revel in the simultaneous living of an experience and its dozen or so echoes in art and media, the echoes making the experience not cheaper but richer, aha! being that much more layered, the depth luxurious, not soul-sucking or numbing but edifying, ramifying."
The style is a gimmick, and not even a particularly new one -- anybody who's read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, or the subtitle alone of Slaughterhouse Five, is familiar with it. But in both those books, especially Wallace's, the hyperreferentiality is an informed device, a technique designed to draw the reader further into the narrative. Eggers uses it instead to push the reader out of it. Making his characters break character, turning Toph into a psychiatrist telling Eggers the deep-seated reasons why he does the things he does, reads like Eggers' way of not giving critics a way to criticize. The opening notes offer a rundown of the book's overarching themes -- "The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance," "The Solipsism as Likely Result of Economic, Historical and Geopolitical Privilege Aspect" -- but any reader who's willing to meet Eggers' writing halfway (which isn't hard to do, it's so well crafted) can glean those themes of loss, privilege, pathos, parenthood/brotherhood, etc. without him holding up cue cards.
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