Could he really be doing all this for attention? Could he really be milking his own past to solicit sympathy from a too-long indifferent public?
It’s San Francisco in the early nineties. The Silicon Valley playground of today has not yet devoured the grubby hippie paradise of the mid-century. Instead, the two seemed for a time to be moving in parallel. Startup culture was already there, an incubator for cool, new things made with creative freedom and virtually no hope of profit. Few would have seen it, like droves of overachieving tech utopians now do, as billionaire’s first steps.
It’s a place where, from Dave Eggers’ point of view, you were not to care about such things: “No one is allowed to make money, or spend money, or look like you’ve spent money, money is suspect.” The emphasis was not on wealth or success, but on creative vitality. Eggers’ San Francisco is a city of dreadlocked dudes playing hackie sack on the Haight, bike messengers who also write political tracts, beleaguered grad students, and a man in his early twenties wrestling with his little brother in the park; the same man who runs an artsy satirical magazine out of an office whose last tenants were the founders of Wired; the same man whose parents had a year ago died of cancer within two months of each other; the same man who migrated West with his little brother and older sister to start life as the new, untested, radical American Family.
You’ve probably heard that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is genre-defying. The term memoir still kicks around, if only to iterate that this book is largely based on Eggers’ own life and that its narrator is named Dave Eggers. But, as the author says in the Preface, “this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction.” Indeed it is calculated at every turn to dismantle your received wisdom about such a book. Characters adopt the narrator’s own voice and critique his narrative choices from within the story; or the narrator asks rhetorical questions of characters until we realize he is, in fact, asking them of himself and of his book; or some other cute meta stuff that is entertaining even as it is, perhaps, gimmicky.
Taken too seriously the style would turn insufferable, but Eggers makes it all digestible using humour and charm. The most memorable scenes in this meandering book are the interactions between Eggers and his little brother, Toph, for whom he is effectively a single parent. Their relationship is deep and complicated and almost always funny. Their perfectly timed exchanges combine the serious worries of a parent for a child with the ludicrous interactions of siblings. When Dave and Toph are swimming in the ocean, Dave envisions Toph being swept out by the undertow:
—he’s been pulled hundreds of feet out by now… when I come up for air I can see his little arm, tan and thin, one last wave and… Gone! We should not swim here, ever—
We can swim in pools—
“What’s the deal with your nipples?”
The story crystalizes around Toph, and we see through Dave’s eyes as his little brother grows from a seven-year-old playing Sega in their parents’ basement to a teenager stealing Dave’s Frisbee moves on a California beach. He has drawn a loving portrait of Toph without losing the aloofness of his role as an older brother, and ruminates with wonder and confusion upon the mind of a child as only an older sibling could. They are one of the most amusing literary duos I can remember.
Yet for the book’s youthfulness, the central tension remains the death of the parents, the catch that gives the rest of the story its pioneering swagger. That’s why the Eggerses are so unlike other families. It’s why no one understands them, and why they are there, in California, at all. The book’s difficult early scenes are never far from the rest, especially when outsiders to the family are involved. As rule, their gloomy story exerts a gravitational pull whereby any interaction with strangers tends toward one question: Where are the boy’s parents? For which Dave and Toph have a variety of phony responses designed to either entertain each other or to soften the truth for the naïve normal people. As the years pass the difficulty for Dave is not only living without parents, but living in a world where his story is new and sad to everyone who hears it.
He is always feeling terrible, when the innocent, benign questions of unsuspecting strangers yield the bizarre answer he must provide.
This is above all a book of ironic contradictions, full of opposing layers of tones. The character Dave thinks his endeavors are all genius, but the narrator Dave knows they’re trivial and childish; the narrator knows that the whole book is a dubious self-mythology and says so, but goes on telling it anyways. The title of the book can seem both self-deprecating and, at the same time, kind of true. Dave likes to describe playing Frisbee with Toph as a show of supernatural, world-shaking talent, and although we know that really it’s just two more dudes playing catch on the beach, we can all understand that feeling when everything seems to flow so perfectly that you may as well be tossing that Frisbee into space.
Sure, there are passages I skimmed. The middle bits about Might Magazine can seem long, and certainly the nervous and rambling Acknowledgements section can be left for another time (I thought, “God, is the whole book going to be like this?”). But the book is so audacious that it’s bound to stick in your head for some time after reading. It’s a modern tragicomedy that will make you want to go have an adventure, or go see the San Francisco that, maybe, has not yet completely evaporated.
* * * * *
Dave Eggers is my girlfriend’s favourite author, and even though this is the first book of his I’ve read, my point of view is probably coloured by that. I’m excited to read the rest now, and thanks to her they’re all on the shelf waiting for me (along with a year’s worth of McSweeney’s, from that time when we had a subscription).
This copy is hers, so I’m sorry that I spilled water on it during a skiing trip. The bottom corner bloated a little bit but I’ve seen worse.
Other favourite quotes from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
Just driving to and from Marny’s, in the Castro, is epic, this hill and that hill—oh, the sorrow of flat, straight Illinois!—this vista and that, always the hills, the curves, the maybe our brakes will fail, the maybe someone else’s brakes will fail—it’s always a kind of adventure in faded Technicolor starring a vast array of brightly dressed losers.
We eat the snacks and Toph drinks his root beer, which he’s set on the ground, holding it steady with his feet. He is careful about the things he loves.
We are unusual and tragic and alive.
-Sean “Johnny Bench” McB