The Young Folks
Our second contributor, Andra Belknap, continues the Dave Eggers theme with her thoughts on his breakout book.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
White Person, Mid-Twenties, Tells Why She Loves Dave Eggers and Found A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to be Moving and Illuminating
I INTENDED TO WRITE ABOUT “A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS” (AHWOSG) A FULL WEEK AGO. My progress was derailed by a search through the book for my favorite passages, during which I reread the book for the second time.
Eggers addresses many of the criticisms of his memoir before the story begins, in his “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book”, preface, lengthy acknowledgements and table of contents. He advises his readers that, “… you may want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239-351, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.” This section is indeed the least interesting of the book. Interestingly, (tellingly) it is also the section that reminds me most of my own existence. Moving on. In the acknowledgements he, “acknowledge[s] your problems with the title. He too has reservations.” He shares that he did consider other titles, among them “A Heartbreaking Work of Death and Embarrassment”, “An Astounding Work of Courage and Strength” and “Old and Black in America”. His publisher discarded all but “AHWOSG.”
Eggers tells the story of his parents’ deaths, only six weeks apart, and how he came to have custody of his younger brother, Toph, at age 22. He reveals what many would guard as secrets – his father’s addiction issues, his failure to give his parents a proper burial, his ambivalence about sharing his story and his feeling that his is a story that’s meant to be told. The final product, I believe, is difficult not to relate to.
It’s interesting to think about how a biography of Eggers in his early twenties would read. It would certainly be much different than his memoir. Much of “AHWOSG” never actually happens in the discernible world, the most compelling action takes place in Mr. Eggers’s head. This is a memoir in which characters come back from the dead. Characters gain the ability to fly. In one imagined scene, Eggers and Toph jump out of Eggers’s Civic before it crashes into the ocean, and swan dive perfectly, safely, into the sea. His friends and family (and this is my favorite device) occasionally break character and speak to Eggers about their place in the story. During a scene where Eggers visits John in his hospital bed, a (then-sedated) friend who attempted suicide, the fictional John wakes up and confronts Eggers: “Screw it, I’m not going to be a fucking anecdote in your stupid book… Find someone else to be symbolic of, you know, wasted youth or whatever.”
Eggers’s voice, with his imaginative, wild writing, is striking. It feels real. “AHWOSG” is the only book I’ve ever read where I feel as though I recognize the author’s voice as the one I occasionally hear in my head. He writes what it is to be young and feel the freedom, the burden, of endless possibilities. He believes that he is meant to do extraordinary things. “We have to. It would be absurd not to.” But he can’t decide what those extraordinary things are, how exactly he will go about changing the world. Life is beautiful in its possibilities and boring in its day-to-day monotonies. Eggers is desperate to show someone, anyone, that his emotional experiences are real and scary, beautiful and noteworthy and he’s willing to do anything as long as he can be recognized for what he really, truly is. He longs to be known and at the same time fears that his peers will think of him as something “other,” as some kind of monster. Eggers is both energized and terrified; his prose reflects overwhelming feelings of exhilaration and crippling anxiety – “the constant red/black worry”. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing.
And I understand the criticisms of this work, that Eggers is an egomaniac and his writing is self-serving…
And perhaps it is. But we’re all self-obsessed (see: here). Ours are the realist experiences we’ll ever know. And reading Eggers’s vivid portrait of himself as a young adult (don’t worry, this is not intended as a Joyce reference) reminds me at least that I’m not alone. Judging from the book’s popularity, I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
Andra Belknap is a writer in Washingon, DC.