A Heartbreaking Work
Of Staggering Genius
(Simon & Schuster)There has been much noise about this one, and rightly so. The London Review of Books compared the author to Tobias Smollet, and the New Yorker printed an excerpt from A Heartbreaking Work earlier on. Even Snotty Old RALPH wrote it up briefly in an earlier issue.
It's worth your consideration because we have here something quite strange: a kid writing about living in the 1990's United States without drugs, without much show-off sex, and with a fair degree of frenetic, insightful wonder. The focus is on his younger brother and how, when the family was truncated, in a single year, by the demise of alcoholic father and cancerous mother, Eggers picks up eleven-year-old Toph and they move to Berkeley.
Thus, we have set-up, early on, a familiar literary dynamic --- two compeers of different ages thrown together: Huck Finn and Nigger Jim, Holden Caufield and sister Phoebe, hell --- maybe even Dmitri Karamazov and Alyosha (or, if we stretch it far enough, Falstaff and Prince Hal).
Having said that, we have to point out that Dave Eggers is a kid himself, writing in a breathless Salinger/Tom Wolfe style that is funny, winsome, gripping, and full of fireworks. We are in the head of a young man who is filled with the fantasies and vocabulary of the juvenile set in America --- but carries along with a strange load, one that is, forsooth, quite rare. For Eggers is, for lack of a better phrase, an intellectual neo-Puritan:
The mother, tanned and leathery, with long blond hair and pink lipstick, wearing a long rugby jersey over white stretch pants, is talking, blithely and while gesturing extensively, about how she deals with pot in her home, vis-à-vis her other son, a sophomore in high school:
"I figure if he's gonna smoke, he's gonna smoke." She shrugs elaborately. "So I let him fire up at home. At least I know where he is, what he's doing, that he's not driving around or something."
Though she is talking to another parent, she is glancing my way. I have the feeling she expects me, because I am closer to her high schooler's age than she is, and, because I have creative facial hair, to be sympathetic to her point of view.
But I am too stunned to speak. She should be jailed. And I should raise her children.
"And I should raise her children." Eggers is full of this kind of perverse quasi-Puritan, 19th Century thinking, heavy with insight, but also heavy with punishment --- often self-
punishment. Above all, his words are jam- packed with attention to process, to thinking about thinking:
I was so shocked that I stopped the car to indicate my shock, to punctuate it to myself, to anyone who might be watching, even though I wasn't actually so shocked that I needed to stop the car.
He is a paradoxical soul --- a man in his late twenties who frets about his life and thoughts and how other people see him. At the same time, he's filled with awful fantasies, possible disasters that may befall him, or the world, or his beloved brother: car-
jackings, the two of them being shot out into space, Toph being exposed to the "wrong" people, or being kidnapped by perverts, or Eggers himself being accused of being a pervert --- all those Existential worries that plague anyone trying to live in and make sense out of the violent Mixmaster that is late 20th Century America.
There are lots of rumblings and throat-
clearings before we can even get it off the loading platform: notes on the Library of Congress page (mostly a chart of his sexual orientation), "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book," "Preface," "Contents," "Acknowledgments" (running for fifteen pages, beginning "The author wishes first and foremost to acknowledge his friends at NASA and the United States Marine Corps...")
In fact, it is so jammed with look-
at- me- I'm- writing- a- book stuff that some might be tempted not to venture past page xxxv. Which would be a mistake: this attention- getting, please- love- me stance turns out to be very beguiling --- part and parcel of Dave Eggers, living in 1995, in the Bay Area, caring for, playing with, jollying, immersed in doing the right thing for his younger brother, worrying that it all might be wrong --- and in the process, worrying us, the readers by endlessly fiddling with the words, the way he is expressing himself, sticking in and lists and charts and pictures (a picture of a stapler, for crumb's sakes), dithering over the way he should be expressing himself, setting up our --- his, the readers --- tension, a big fret about whether we are going to still love him, so that at one point we want to call him up and tell him he should just get off the pot and stop worrying so goddamn much.
After all this cranking, we are launched directly into Chapter One: what it was to be caring, on a day-
to- day basis, for his mother, as she is dying of cancer. It's told in a way that is not maudlin, certainly not soppy, often quite funny. And, as with much of Eggers, it's concerned with technique: how do you hold the cloth to control her uncontrollable nose-bleed and do it in such a way that you can watch television at the same time, watch a program, he pauses to tell us, in typical detail, "where young amateur athletes with day jobs in marketing and engineering compete in sports of strength and agility against male and female bodybuilders."
The bodybuilders are mostly blond and impeccably tanned. They look great. They have names that sound fast and indomitable, names like American cars and electronics, like Firestar and Mercury and Zenith. It's a great show.
A Heartbreaking Work is filled with prose, dialogue, amateur drawings (the best approach to sliding on a wooden floor, in your socks, with your brother) --- and even drama, being an interview with a fairly icy, rigid lady at MTV while they were considering him for their program, "The Real World." "God, Eggers," we think, "Cool it. Don't say too much." We want him on that program. But he's a professional over-doer, and he goes on and on, and you figure its just too weird for MTV.
We mentioned all the cranking noises at the start. There is, too, the problem he has, most of us writers have, with stopping: when and where should this outgush of ridiculous self-revelation end. Eggers doesn't know, and obviously his editors didn't know either. Most readers, though, will probably sense it: the moment when he arrives at the beach, with a box of his mothers ashes. It is the perfect rounding. We started, after all the hemming-
and- hawing, with her last days; we are ending with her long-lost ashes in hand --- he says they look like "kitty-litter" --- to sprinkle at Lake Forest (in the water, on the rocks, all while he worries about stepping on her, and whether he's breaking the law). It's the death in the family, the death of the family, a death that sent them off to California, but now that's drawing to a close, because he's learned to survive as writer, as dramatist, as surrogate father, as an essayist. He has presented us with a rainbow burst of imagination --- a work that delights the heart, makes one's soul sing at the self-revealing joy, the bravery of it all.--- Lolita Lark