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.
This is the tradition upon which Dave Eggers draws. Might documented the civil war between idealism and cynicism that occupies a generation; Eggers’s book orchestrates that battle more gracefully by casting it within one individual.
This book is very, very good. Eggers’s voice is funny, slangy and nervous, intellectually alert. There are some real caveats, however: Some of the humor feels formulaic, ba-dum-bum! Whole chapters read like pure transcription from everyday conversation. The style is intensely narcissistic. Eggers’s persona is overdeveloped, and no other character begins to rival his first person in interest or complexity. Reading the book can feel like a goggle-clad virtual-reality experience in which one gets no relief from Eggers’s nervous mind. Witness this scene of his appearance before an MTV camera crew:
We are wearing what we always wear, shorts and T-shirts, having decided, after thinking about what to wear and then remembering not to think about what to wear, to wear what we would have worn had we not been thinking about what to wear…. We wear no tattoos, because we feel tattoos indicate too much attention paid to one’s look…. We have opted out…the look of absolutely no look at all…. We are also young people pretending to be young people, putting across an image of ourselves as representatives, for now and posterity, of how youth were at this juncture, how we acted, and in particular, how we acted when we were pretending not to act while pretending to be ourselves…. The camera guy and the sound guy, slightly older, backward-hat-wearers, are clearly unimpressed, are almost rolling their eyes at us, because they clearly see through the whole thing, that we are using this to get exposure, to prove to all and ourselves that we are real, that we like everyone else simply want our lives on tape, proven, feel that what we are doing only becomes real once it has been entered into the record.
Eggers seems to live behind a pane of glass. His descriptions of the rooms and landscapes, of friends, even of lovers, are bereft of sensuality or physicality. There are no great moments of connection with others. That which does not affect his life directly does not exist.
That said, however, Eggers gets a generation’s vernacular onto the page, and it feels like a vindication for our skittish, apathetic clan. For a decade, some of us have acted as if we truly were determined to make nothing out of something, but a shift seems in the offing. Eggers fulfills the famous 1993 writ of ironic tribal elder David Foster Wallace, who in that year jokingly challenged young writers to “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” Eggers treats of troubles and emotions but skips the reverence and conviction parts. He still takes aim at stupidities but has also moved on to describe experience.
He is especially adept at the narcissistic flights one’s mind takes into grandiosity and delusion, every day several times a day. The self-pitying monologues one prepares for the lucky moment one finds a willing ear. How one wraps experience up in humor because humor is assimilable, when the truth is vague, unclear. The hope that success and fame might counter a sense that one doesn’t really exist. There’s palpable love for friends and family, an emotion that he knows better than to tarnish by explicit articulation.
Are these the concerns of a narcissistic and attention-deficit-disordered generation? Yes and no. The self-consciousness is largely a style, organic to a particular group of young, affluent people. In some writers it comes to be the content as well. But Rousseau treated similar themes, and there is real meat in how Eggers dovetails the tragic and comic modes.
One of the reasons humor comes into play in tragic circumstance is that the two modes are related: The tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comic the painless one. Kierkegaard warns against “the indefinite excitement which lies in laughing when one does not really know whether to laugh or not,” but Eggers is not laughing about death. He describes it straightforwardly and lyrically. During his parents’ terminal illnesses, Eggers writes that “from books and television I know to do this. One should joke in the face of adversity; there is always humor, we are told. But in the last few weeks, we haven’t found much. We have been looking for funny things, but have found very little.”
He does laugh at the awkward experience of being seen by others as “someone whose parent has died.” When Eggers tries to get onto MTV’s The Real World by offering to be their Tragic Guy (alongside the Lesbian and the Black Person), I laughed out loud, remembering the uses parental death could have had for me. After my father died, my high school French teacher told me I could leave class if a death scene in Racine’s Phèdre upset me. I declined. Many people take a prurient interest in death, and to play to this is to come to embody tragedy and loss, which amounts to a loss of self.
The moment my friends showed up at my dad’s funeral and started cracking jokes was the moment I was finally with someone I could trust, and the first time I cried. Afterward, I played board games with another girl whose father had just died. She didn’t ask me how I felt or serve up prepackaged pieties; she was quiet, familiar. I bet that Eggers would have been a good player.
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.
Like an intellectual fairy tale, Eggers’s story is a literalization of George Trow’s claim that history has ceded to demography and that the paternal, nonnarcissistic man is dead. Eggers regularly addresses the 47 million in his generational and marketing demographic unit, and his father is, literally, dead. Trow, Christopher Lasch and others have warned that dire effects will result from the grand changes of the past fifty years, and Eggers looks like Exhibit A. His levity is not, however, tragic or emasculating. Like the humor of Chris Rock or South Park, his self-mocking voice is interested but not sold on anything. It’s more practical than ideological. It’s one of the few voices many young people will trust. And if those on the left are wondering how to politicize or even just speak to people under 30, they need to do as Madison Avenue has done and take some language classes.
After describing the panic and freedom that result from having “neither floor nor ceiling,” Eggers soon wants his generation (or his friends) to become a “lattice” to hang from or a “snowshoe” to walk on. It’s a moving metaphor for a sense of one’s network as porous and imperfect but tough and functional. His lattice fantasy corresponds in an uncanny way to the vision of poor Jedediah Purdy, author of last year’s For Common Things and the ironist’s whipping boy, of a web of bodies held up by collective balance and cooperation. Both want a vibrant public life, and both seem frustrated by how a culture of passivity would preclude it.
Yet unlike Purdy, Eggers critiques this impulse from within. He deftly explores the roots of his own exhortatory desires and his lust to be a symbol:
I am the common multiplier for 47 million! I am the perfect amalgam! I was born of both stability and chaos. I have seen nothing and everything…. Can you not see what I represent? I am both a) martyred moralizer and b) amoral omnivore born of the suburban vacuum + idleness + television + Catholicism + alcoholism + violence…let me be… the center of the lattice. Let me be the conduit…. I want to be the heart pumping blood to everyone.
Eggers alludes to the tangled, misdirected anger behind his desire for moral authority. When the desire to issue an ethical call to arms is stronger than the desire simply to be an ethical person, something is awry–hence the twentysomething distrust of activists and self-declared leaders. Ethics are increasingly crafted from practical, everyday decisions, not ideological generalities. And yet Eggers is right to be sick of the sleeping sickness that besets his peers. He ends the book by admitting to us that he is just “trying to get your stupid fucking attention.” He’s got it. Now he has to figure out what he can do with it.