Book Reviews


Unconventional memoir nearly lives up to title

Sunday, April 2, 2000

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers. Simon & Schuster. 375 pages. $23.

     Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is a memoir that also makes fun of the genre.
     It tells the story of how, when Eggers was 21, both of his parents died of cancer within one month, leaving him to raise his 7-year-old brother. It also wonders how to tell this story without becoming maudlin, without exploiting the author's pain (and the lives of his parents, siblings, friends), and without its self-conscious style sounding too cute. Surprisingly, the book comes close to living up to its title.
     As many contemporary commercials do, Eggers' memoir/anti-memoir uses irony to convey sincerity. For example, the book's 20 pages of acknowledgments admits "the Painfully, Endlessly Self-conscious Book Aspect" and "the Knowingness About the Book's Self-consciousness Aspect," adding that in "admitting the gimmickry" of this tactic he hopes to "pre-empt your claim of the book's irrelevance due to said gimmickry." Like advertisements that parody themselves, winking at viewers who (the commercials imply) are too smart to be watching a commercial, Eggers flatters his readers' intelligence to coax them into adopting his perspective.
     He goes on to acknowledge his fee for writing the book, voting for Ross Perot in 1996, Palestinian statehood and the "implicit logic of the instant replay rule." Were Eggers to continue in this manner, the joke would grow very old very quickly. Wisely, the remainder of the work is more - though by no means entirely - conventional in its narrative style, mixing bathos with pathos, and metafictional musing with heartfelt feeling.
     The narrator's acute awareness of artifice ought to make the story appear less real, but actually makes it seem more so. When what appears to be a transcript of an interview with the producer of MTV's "Real World" suddenly acknowledges that it is just a narrative device, we sense that we have been invited to peek at the author's creative processes, watching - over his shoulder, perhaps - as he writes the book. A maneuver that should feel manipulative instead feels intimate.
     Not all of his experiments work, but Eggers, former editor of the defunct "Might" magazine and current editor of the eccentric literary journal "McSweeney's," knows what he's doing. His prose can be quite lyrical, his shifts in tone emotionally effective, and only a rare 20-something could write "I am 24 but feel 10,000 years old" and make us believe it.
     (Phil Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)


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