Arts & Entertainment: Sunday, March 05, 2000 

“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

We’ve all had a friend who was bright, neurotic, unsatisfied, overanalyzed everything and just wouldn’t shut up. We hung out with that person because the positives outweighed the negatives. I expect this is how Dave Eggers’ friends must feel about him.

His memoir, or anti-memoir, is a rambling, sloppy mess of brilliance. Eggers, a founder of the defunct satirical magazine Might, and a current editor of McSweeney’s, lost both his parents to cancer within about a month of each other. Left with the responsibility of raising his 8-year-old brother, he turned it into an anthropological adventure.

“Though he has often been resistant, children so seldom know what is good for them – I have taught him to appreciate all the groundbreaking musicmakers of our time – Big Country, Haircut One Hundred, Loverboy – and he is lucky for it. His brain is my laboratory, my depository . . . He is my twenty-four-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile.”

Eggers recognizes that he is not the only person in the world to lose parents to cancer, or to inherit a younger sibling, but he points out that he is “currently the only one with a book contract.”

This smart-alecky tone is established early. The epigraph, “This Was Uncalled For,” is followed by “Rules and Suggestions For Enjoyment of This Book” such as “Skip much of the middle, namely page 213-395, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties.” And in the acknowledgments Eggers relates, “While the author is self-conscious about being self-conscious, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality. Further . . . he plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality.”

There is much to criticize about this book, but little that Eggers hasn’t already thought of and attempted to pre-empt. After 43 pages of preamble and a random drawing of a stapler, the story starts. Eggers’ mother is dying of cancer. Her death is agonizingly long. His fathers’ death is sudden.

Both parents gone, Eggers takes care of his 8-year-old brother, Chris, aka Toph. Eggers is 21 at the time, and is not clear why he, rather than his older brother or sister, becomes the youngest child’s caretaker. In any case, Eggers, his girlfriend, his older sister and Toph all leave the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest and move to Berkeley to set up house.

Soon it becomes just Eggers and Toph. Their lives are a parody of normalcy. They fake father-son fights, Toph begs Eggers not to date his classmates’ mothers, and Eggers writes notes to Toph’s teachers such as, “Dear Mrs. Richardson, I am sorry Chris is late this morning. I could make something up about an appointment or a sickness, but the fact is that we woke up late.”

The middle section of the book – the part Eggers advises skipping – chronicles the struggle of Might magazine. If you’ve never heard of Might, it was a thin Generation X ‘zine devoted to the art of ridicule and irony, exactly the sort of thing Jedediah Purdy, in his book, “For Common Things,” argued was contributing to the poisonous cynicism of our times.

Eggers, however, is 29 now, and interested in moving beyond irony and cynicism, working to the core of some genuineness that defies deconstruction, and he occasionally succeeds.

The book’s denouement comes when Eggers returns to Michigan to pick up his mother’s ashes and spread them into Lake Michigan, a scene that deftly mixes slap-stick comedy, self-protective solipsism and genuine sorrow.

The positives in this book are inventiveness, intelligence, relentless wit and, most of all, a good story. The negatives are knee-jerk irony and an aversion to subtlety.

The positives outweigh the negatives, however, and if you still like that hyper-clever friend who won’t shut up, you will like this book.


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