Thursday, March 6, 2008

A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, by Dave Eggers


I've reached the halfway point in this book, and am starting to doubt that I'll make it the rest of the way through. At the start I was impressed. The first chapter especially felt poignant, with its focus on the death of the author's parents: authentic tragedy, rich with emotional meaning. From there we dive into the author's self-obsession, a veritable celebration of himself; ego-stroking at it's most blatant. Almost makes me think of Rock of Love, which my girlfriend sometimes watches, in which a desperate has-been sets up an entire television show just to feed his fragile sense of importance, and pouts like a petulant child whenever his pawn-like cast-members fail to reinforce that shallow fantasy. Eggers uses his family tragedy and his supposed "care-taking" of his pre-adolescent brother as props, hoping to provoke feelings of affection and sympathy, but the humanity of those props is compromised by the author's transparent desire to bask in glory. After a while, reading this novel feels like a way of belittling yourself, giving your attention and time to a primadonna set on using you for personal aggrandizement.

I've found myself wondering, as I turn the pages to this tome, how it ever achieved bestseller status (not to imply that bestseller status is indicative of quality). I suppose part of the explanation lies in its gimickry--such as the upside down and backwords rear cover (to give the impression of a second book); the writing in areas not normally given over to authorial influence (like in the copywrite info at the front of the book, in which Eggers assures us that we don't have to worry about the size of the publishing house or other major corporations because they have "very very small" influence over quirky individuals such as ourselves); or the rambling "Acknowledgements" section, which includes various charts and graphs, a cost breakdown of what the author was paid for the book (which omits the 1.5 million he got for paperback rights), and ends with a random drawing of a stapler. All that clever playing-about might have charmed a lot of the stodgy New York book reviewers, inundated as they are with more orthodox works, and convinced them to pen laudatory blurbs--and we all know that blurbs sell books. Maybe the general reading public was similarly affected. Maybe this book attained bestseller status from quirk alone.

It's also interesting to note that Eggers oftentimes becomes apologetic or defensive for using these novelties, claiming that "It does not mean that someone is being POMO or META or CUTE...it has no far-reaching implications for the art...it should not make you angry," and yet he uses these tricks so relentlessly, so compulsively, that there isn't any significant portion of text untouched by them; the gimickry is practically inseperable from the "art" itself. If you do try to block out the slight-of-hand, what you're left with is generally uninspired writing: lots of telling (instead of showing), relatively little scene-setting, words and words in a babbling stream, with little eloquence or sense of economy. You spend this book locked within Eggers mind, your ears filled with his thoughts. Rarely are you given an environment to inhabit, a view to contemplate, a paragraph of description focused on the way something looks instead of what Eggers thinks about it. That's why I'm so fed up now, approaching the halfway mark. The effect is cumulative, claustrophobic. Reading this book makes me feel like I'm tied to a plank, being water-boarded by a flood of Eggers' persona.

Eggers offers a few apologias for this self-obsessiveness, too. He takes a few half-hearted cracks at himself (usually in the form of dialogue, in which he uses other characters--his little brother, an MTV interviewer--as puppets that point out his manipulations of the story; in the case of his little brother, offered initially as a reason to feel empathy for Eggers' story, this invasion feels particularly sinister), but those cracks feel more like a way of covering his ass than true expressions of concern. They almost come across as more manipulation: I'm telling you how it is, I'm an honest and forthcoming guide through this story, you should therefore give me unrestricted authority; I'll do the questioning and analysis so you don't have to. At the point where I had to put the book down, and start writing this review, Eggers (in a mock interview with MTV, to get on the Real World) had just finished saying that self-obsessed people are the only interesting people. The irony of this statement should be obvious. To Dave Eggers (of which this memoir is a monument of self-obsession, possibly making him the most interesting person in the world) his self-obsession makes him interesting. I have no doubt that he is interesting, to himself most of all. But when people are primarily interested in themselves, they cannot truly engage with other people. And a man who can't engage with other people is hardly capable of producing engaging art.

1 comment:

sam pink said...

right on, brother. right on.