Dave Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has been a bit too loudly hyped as an ironic tearjerker, and a media juggernaut has branded its author a tragic hero. (The story goes: At 21, a young man who grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb loses both parents to cancer within five weeks. Then he raises his younger brother and starts Might, the mid-nineties San Francisco humor and issues magazine for twentysomethings, until he finally folds the magazine and tempers some of his hopes for his peers and for himself.) His self-consciously self-conscious style has occasioned “voice of his generation” talk. The book arrives during a moment when the literary intellectual stage is rife with discord: In the pages of the New York Review of Books or on the web magazine Slate, A.O. Scott, David Foster Wallace, Jedediah Purdy, Michael Hirschorn and others have staked positions in the rival “irony” and “sincerity” rhetorical camps like so many Capulets and Montagues.
Poor Eggers is a talented writer in the grip of deranged literary celebrity: He’s a hook, a novelty item, a personality. But his psychology is more complex than the “sad clown” cliché, and intellectually his book could help elevate the level of the discussion beyond the facile irony/sincerity opposition. He is bringing some lofty literary ambitions to a wide audience and suffering the inevitable disjuncture. He is a man approaching 30 looking back over his 20s, and the book is a memoir of a style and a pose. Not unlike one of Wallace’s hideous men, Eggers has been aggressive, self-obsessed and paralyzed by self-consciousness. It’s clear that the writer’s humor has matured (he’s less derisive, more absurdist), but, unlike the protagonists of, say, Nick Hornby’s work (High Fidelity, About a Boy), the character “Dave Eggers” doesn’t reach any grand conclusions about life. Eggers’s vernacular is younger and more colloquial than Rick Moody’s, but his perspective recalls the immediacy and the ambivalence of “Demonology,” the older writer’s short story about his sister’s death, in which there is little redemption or transcendence. Such writing resembles the imperfect shape and rhythm of life more than the sleekness of a story.
If Eggers’s champions don’t get him, his naysayers fail even to read his book. Just among my immediate circle of friends, in their 20s or early 30s, I’ve heard countless objections to Eggers’s kind of humor. A female memoirist declares, “It’s such a boy thing! You should call him on that.” An actress says “that sensibility” doesn’t appeal to her. “You shouldn’t be ironic like that anymore,” says an artist. “People are into spirituality and being genuine now.”
What is this dread “irony” that everyone loves to hate? Nothing that corresponds to the dictionary definition of the rhetorical trope. They don’t mean the deadpan statement of the opposite of your literal meaning, or the way an event turns out the opposite of expectations. Nor do they refer to the philosophic position of the ironist, whose sense of the radical contingency of values and beliefs gives rise to feelings of pity or empathy for others, the “tragic vision of the world” of Richard Rorty or Cornel West.
What these people mean by “the ironist” is a stock character in contemporary culture: the smartass, the snarky guy (or gal) who goes beyond funny to bilious and bitter, arrogant, sarcastic, making fun of people who aren’t in the club. Someone who found in high school that intelligence couldn’t bring popularity. Someone who thinks pointing out stupidity constitutes humor.
One might cross the street to avoid this individual. But paradoxically enough, in his rhetorical family tree grows a very different sensibility that draws on some of the same roots but produces an entirely other voice: funny, critical, striving and wistful. It’s humor, not irony. It’s merciless on itself, so its genuine moments feel earned. A lot of good popular culture produced in the last decade uses dark, sick humor: The Onion, David Sedaris, Bruce Wagner, Pavement, Mark Leyner, Prince Paul, Heavy Metal Parking Lot. These hark back to comics artist Dan Clowes, the British sitcom The Young Ones and the band Cheap Trick. Even bands in the sweet “new sincerity” vein–Quasi, Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, the Magnetic Fields–are still very funny.