Monday, December 9, 2013

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

2001, "originally published in hardcover in slightly different 2000," this edition from Vintage (Random House)
Dave Eggers
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Original price $14.00, purchase price $2.00
Worn paperback

In "Mistakes We Were Making," the sort of afterword/update that you have to flip the book over to read, Eggers complains that many people assumed his book is ironic, when it's just funny.  The real irony is that the book isn't funny.  While his namesake David Sedaris can make me laugh out loud, even when I don't like the subjects (in both the "people" and "topics" senses), Eggers keeps undercutting himself.  If the whole book had been along the lines of the copyright page, then I might've liked it about equally to the 250-years-older Tristam Shandy, but unlike Sterne, Eggers doesn't sustain this.  Even as a memoir of what it was like to be orphaned at 22 and raise his 7/8/9-year-old brother (the chronology is really screwy), it doesn't work because Eggers, yes, sidetracks himself.

Another irony, considering Eggers's weird racial and gender issues, is that the book this most reminded me of was McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in that it's "autobiographical fiction"* but I couldn't tell how much of the unreliable and/or unpleasant narrator was unintentional.  Also, they both keep emphasizing their own coolness, and yes, they doth protest too much.  And thirdly, they both are set in very specific times and places-- '90s Northern California in both, as well as respectively Illinois and Jamaica-- that it's interesting to visit in book form, but the settings unfortunately take a backseat to the characters, themes, and so-called plots.  I moved to the Silicon Valley in '94, so I wanted to know more about Berkeley and San Francisco at that time, but this isn't the book to inform me.  And when I'd tell myself, "OK, forget about the single/young parent thing, because Eggers has, let's focus on his experience at Might magazine," Eggers would do what he could to make that sound unappealing.  (If you can't even get a good story out of faking Adam Rich's death, there's not much hope for you.)

As with Stella, I was in a way more annoyed with this book than with something that deserves a D+ or lower.  There are some not-bad passages, there is potential.  But Eggers seems determined to frustrate the reader on every front.  

And then I looked up Eggers, thinking this was probably a one-hit wonder (best-seller, Pulitzer nominee).  No, actually he's still (at 43) considered one of the best writers of his (and, ugh, my) generation.  But I did feel vindicated because he cowrote the abysmal screenplay to Where the Wild Things Are (2009), which has some of the same flaws as this book, including a lack of resolution.  

*So why does this get the "biography" tag and that didn't?  I guess because the main "characters'" names are unchanged here.

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