Eggers describes trying to entertain his younger brother, "a campaign of distraction and revisionist history," while their older sister attempts to get them to admit their grief. The best indication of why is a brief moment when Eggers is playing "dad" to his brother's "son." Eggers does some of their father's old jokes and gags. It becomes clear that humor is the lingua franca of this family, and that to stay within the comic is his way to mourn. (He seems unable to do that in any direct way.)
There are creative limits to where "funny" can go by itself, of course, as Jerry Seinfeld acknowledged when he decided to end his show. The cheap shot flattens experience. But comedy can be heartbreaking and depressing, hostile and aggressive, or ridiculous and wondrous. Even if it's a sublimation, Eggers's humor has depth and shadow and obviously serious intentions.
The book recalled to mind a moment from the last days of my father's illness. My father, a former Air Force man, was scared and living in a morphine hallucination in a hospital room, grizzled and gaunt. He whispered to my mother and me that the three of us needed to go out the window. Why? In order to fly the hell out of there. When he tried to extricate his IV, his doctors tethered him to the bed. Desperation seeping through his fantasy, he asked me to untie him. I declined, and he directed a spew of obscenities my way. I started shaking so hard, the nurse told my mother that maybe I should leave the room.
The way I relayed this incident to my 15- and 16-year-old girl peers was within a joke they could relate to:
DAD: Come over here and untie me. We are going to fly away.
ME: No way!
DAD: Get over here this minute young lady and do as I tell you.
ME: You can't tell me what to do!
This version of events was not particularly funny, but the response it elicited was a knowing laughter rather than "oh, the horror." For a dozen years afterward, I remembered only the joke. A few months ago, I was watching an episode of South Park in which Stan's grandfather repeatedly tries to force him to assist in his suicide. The memory of the original incident came tumbling out, perfectly preserved after being hidden for so many years, never told straight. Humor can be a nervous response to not knowing how to handle something, or an envelope in which to hand someone anger, sadness, joy or any combination of these. With Eggers, as it had with me, it seems to be both at once.
Even Eggers's most straightforward, moving passages are shown to be trompe l'oeil. And yet they are true anyway. He pairs every single oratorical flourish with withering self-critique. He stages several fictional interviews in which his younger brother accuses him of having false motives: He exaggerates his friendship with others with tragic stories and falsely romanticizes his sense of parental responsibility in order to paper over the revenge and self-satisfaction he thereby exacts. He manages to trump his own father, who was an irresponsible and mendacious alcoholic.
There is a tradition in Western opera (The Marriage of Figaro is the best example) of counterbalancing lofty and lowly. A noble couple who expound upon the romantic ideal is paired against two servants who discuss bodily functions and emotional fickleness. These are, of course, two parts of a very important whole that every pair of lovers experiences. Eggers expertly plays his own grandiosity against his own buffoonery. He is his own straight man and his own punch line.
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, conviction and doubt, depth and humor, are placed side by side. Each is a style, and each is true and false at once. Eggers won't let the reader make the choice between them--we don't know where he really falls. The result is exhausting and frustrating, but trustworthy.