A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
485 pages, paperback, $15
Twelve years ago, with his literary debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers may have given us a book that is impossible to review, to discuss, or to criticize. In the long war of author against critic, this is an impressive victory for the author. Everything that can be said about Dave Eggers’s book (which he nicknames A.H.W.O.S.G.) has already been said by Dave Eggers. If I exaggerate, I don’t exaggerate very much: the first paperback edition of the book contains a critical apparatus that’s more on the scale of a Norton Critical Edition than it has any right to be. The front matter—including an “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors,” a copyright page reminding us that the influence of corporations like Bertelsmann A.G. on our “daily lives and hearts” is “very very small, and so hardly worth worrying about,” and a drawing of a stapler—is 45 pages long. When I flip my copy of A.H.W.O.S.G. upside-down and look at its back cover, it becomes a different book, Mistakes We Knew We Were Making (this under-cover proudly announces not that it is a National Bestseller but that it is a National Curiosity), 48 more pages of “notes, corrections, clarifications, apologies, addenda.”
Apologies, I think, is the most apt of these descriptors. Really, these pages are more in the vein of self-deprecation—but what a self-defensive self-deprecation! You don’t even need to look further than the title to understand this: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius aspires to be just that, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It wears that aspiration on its sleeve (does anyone ever call a dust jacket a “sleeve”? I guess that pun doesn’t really work) in order to protect itself against the charge that it’s trying too hard. “Of course I’m trying too hard,” the book winks at us. “That’s what’s so funny about me.” How are we (we critics, in the broad meaning of those who read and think about books, and sometimes write about them) supposed to argue with that? It’s like arguing on the Internet with an idiot who thinks that the reply to everything is a smirking picture of Christopher Nolan’s childish and overrated version of the Joker: Why So Serious? Eggers’s mode of self-deprecation can be infuriatingly somber, though: the very first page of the front matter proclaims in stately capitals: “THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.”
I haven’t even said anything yet about the meat of the book, the story. But the protective shells that are its self-critical apparatus are repeated in less obviously but no less uselessly intricate fashion in its 437-page text. Do we (the critics) fault Eggers (the author) for being a selfish, infantile twentysomething? He is ahead of us there, describing an ongoing quest for self-gratification while a hospitalized friend hovers between life and death. Do we fault him for being a hipster snob? He is ahead of us there, too, recounting the navel-gazing founding days of an indie ‘zine called “Might” (a title that turns out to be as meaninglessly clever as the title of A.H.W.O.S.G. itself). Do we fault him for being an exhibitionist, parlaying his tragedies into fame and fortune? Oh, he is ahead of us there: in one of the book’s countless tours de force, he tries out for a spot on MTV’s Real World (one of the first and thus one of the most blameworthy examples of reality television), making his case largely on the basis that he is special, because his parents are so recently and so tragically dead. Look at me, he says, I’m an exhibitionist. Look at me, I’m pathetic. Sorry, did I not mention that his parents are dead? That’s actually what this book is about, though you wouldn’t know it from its cumbersomely liberated style and structure.
Once upon a time, I read this book at the same time as a friend. We didn’t discuss the book much (because it’s impossible to discuss it without ending up in a vicious cycle of “what does Eggers mean,” as if we’re talking about iocane powder). But we talked about it enough to discover that we had different ideas about what the point of the book was. I thought it was about the author mourning his parents’ deaths from cancer two months apart; she thought it was about the author raising Toph, his younger brother, in the absence of his parents. I like my interpretation better, because I am an egotist my interpretation can contain both interpretations: the author’s raising of Toph is only necessary because their parents are dead. The author atones for the death of his parents by taking their roles and duties upon himself. (See what I did with the struck-out phrase in this paragraph? See? It’s distracting and self-serving. That’s why it’s bad style. Eggers is better at it than I am, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s bad.)
What’s truly heartbreaking about A.H.W.O.S.G. is that the author’s parents are dead, and he cannot express his grief. He turns to the aforementioned hedonism and exhibitionism as means of self-concealment. I opened my essay by saying that with this book the author has defeated the critics—but what has this author’s victory done for the reader? What if this book’s critics and its readers are actually one and the same? Sure, critics can be annoying at times, with their rigorous and righteous post-this-and-that methods of analysis. But this book doesn’t just make hoity-toity lit-crit impossible; it makes discussion and rational interaction with the text impossible, and I think that those are tasks in which each reader, regardless of his critical tradition, must engage. It is a book that we, as readers, cannot understand. All we can know about the author’s deep and genuine grief is that we cannot understand it, that he must muster all his craft and all his power to conceal it.
Is that enough for the book to say? Should we let A.H.W.O.S.G. stand as a warm and funny monument in mockery of cold and terrifying death? I feel cruel for saying this, but I don’t want to let Eggers off so easily. For what end does literature exist, if not to express that which is otherwise inexpressible? He’s made such a good start: I can only imagine that the death of one’s parents would be an all-consuming event around which every other event must cluster for the rest of one’s life and in the rest of one’s writing until the end of time. Please don’t think I’m flippant if I bring up the Holocaust here, but I think a comparison between Eggers’s personal tragedy and the modern tragedy of the Jewish nation is warranted, because Eggers’s book ought to be compared with the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a frequent contender with A.H.W.O.S.G. for the honorific of Book of the Decade, written by Michael Chabon and likewise published in the year 2000. Both books present us with tragedies, after which lives go on. Eggers’s protagonist (himself) must cope with his grief while making sure that his brother gets to school on time and doesn’t get axed to death by any murderous babysitters. Chabon’s protagonist, a Czech artist named Joe Kavalier, likewise survives the death of his family, by slipping out of Europe, Houdini-like; he copes with his tragedy by projecting his sorrow and guilt and imagined revenges into the form of a superhero character called The Escapist, unwittingly launching the Golden Age of Comics.
Chabon has proved, I think, that Eggers had another door open to him, through which he could escape, just like Joe Kavalier and Kavalier’s creation. Sorrow can be sublimated into the act of creating—not “creativity” in the sense of unchecked torrents of such new and untried thoughts and styles as Eggers has on offer, but “creating” in the sense of making something which is real and which must adhere to certain forms and rules of the real world in order to survive. After all, Kavalier’s creation (as the title of Chabon’s book suggests) is not really so new; The Escapist is made out of clay, not out of whole cloth; he is drawn from the template of the golem, that superman of clay who fought for the lives and culture of the Jews of Europe in the dark days of medieval persecution, in what must have seemed their time of greatest need.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Joe Kavalier’s comic books succeed in embracing and expressing his sorrow, while Dave Eggers’s kaleidoscopic novel-memoir does not. We can understand Kavalier’s simple works of popular literature, his stories-within-Chabon’s-story. We can talk about them and debate them; we can recommend them to friends; we can dream about them and seek comfort and understanding in them; we can welcome them and make them a part of the way we look at the world. Eggers is so afraid of our condemnation, or of his own tragedy, that he doesn’t give us the chance to do any of these things.
I have to admit, though, that I will never stop being impressed by the section of A.H.W.O.S.G. in which Eggers recounts the circumstances of his mother’s illness and death. These first 45 pages are stunning, breathtaking, straightforward and raw and un-ironic. It’s the kind of writing that might come about only once in a generation. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s undoubtedly the work of a genius. If only the entire book were like this. Even this sparkling sequence of honesty and admirable pathos leaves the author too vulnerable, requiring protection in the form of that tiresome, by now familiar self-awareness: in one of the book’s sections of self-criticism, Eggers specifically suggests that the reader stop shortly after the opening sequence and skip the rest of the book, noting that “The book thereafter is kind of uneven.”
The most favorable way I can think of evaluating A.H.W.O.S.G. is to treat it as an ironically good-humored recognition that communication in the wake of all-consuming grief is impossible. But to the extent that all human stories are stories about all-consuming grief, A.H.W.O.S.G. suggests that its story is the only kind of story that can be told. That strikes me as unfair: if this book is right, every book should be like this. If writing is to continue, as a bargain not only between writers and readers but between writers and future writers, then writing must have something to say, other than saying that there is nothing to say. My hero, William Faulkner, famously declined to accept the end of man. He said: “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.” He said: “I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” Eggers’s voice exists only for the sake of talking. Maybe there is a sorrow so bottomless that in its abyss even a “puny and inexhaustible voice” is something to celebrate. But I stand with Faulkner on this point. I am too much an optimist to accept that A.H.W.O.S.G. is the best that literature can do. I decline to accept this book.