Dave Eggers is a fine writer, but he's kind of full of himself. Sure, you say, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a title only an egomaniac would come up with. Ironically, the title was the result of a contest where people provided names for his memoir, and not the invention of the author (or so he claims in the rambling preface which he assures us does not need to be read). It's not even the material that gives one a sense of his arrogance—he's had genuinely painful experiences, and it takes a pretty hard-hearted reader to not sympathize with the guy.
What ultimately reveals Eggers' self-absorption is his prose style. He constantly drags us out of the text to look at it from his perspective, analyzing and commenting on events, characters, even particular sentence structures. Sometimes these digressions are entertaining, and sometimes they even add depth and focus to the narrative, but most of the time they hover uneasily on the periphery of the reader's consciousness and distract from any meaningful content. He knows how to work a sentence, certainly; but he doesn't always know when to take a break and just tell his story without the often charming, usually unnecessary paraphernalia of interpretation.
So why even read the memoir of a journalist surrounded by dysfunctional family members and addicts? Just to allow him to revel in his own literary creativity? So we can feel miserable about the condition of the human race? Once again, it's Eggers' style that makes this a valuable book, if not an altogether instructive one. A memoir "based on a true story" as the subtitle informs us is the epitome of contemporary American self-conscious creation, in which the author not only maintains awareness of his own act, but also forces us to bear it in mind at all times, to essentially become part of the creative act with him.
This can be traced to any number of literary theories (most notably, reader response criticism), but in the end it's simply evidence of a modern (mostly American) lack of identity. If the writer knew who he was and what it was he wanted to convey to other people, his presence as author in the text would be superfluous. He would point to truths or explore existential concerns or whatever else, not needing to relentlessly remind us that it is he and no one else who is writing what we're reading.
Eggers' book is essentially an experiment in self-exploration via self-revelation, more important to him than to anyone else. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is representative of a whole body of literature produced in the last 15 years, mainly by youngish Americans, where the audience is of less importance than the author. Reading this book is like reading about the angst of the entire Generation X, and while it might be consequently boring and outlandish by turns, it explains a lot about why things are the way they are. If that's all this book was, of course, it would be nearly impossible to read; fortunately, Eggers can write, and has a sense of humor, so it's not all just sorrow and anguish. But there's enough.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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