When I reviewed Mark Leyner’s Gone With The Mind earlier this year, there was an interesting theme that kept popping up in the comments section. Many readers had been fans of Leyner in the past—even passionate ones—but they were only tentatively interested in his latest, having grown out of him with time.
This kind of reaction wasn’t surprising. There are certain authors—Leyner among them, but Tom Robbins and Chuck Palahniuk also come to mind—who can strike the right people at the right time and seize their imaginations. “We’re looking to them as keys that open doors to dangerous ideas and exciting new adult worlds,” The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin wrote of such artists—and when those readers then settle into their adulthood, the allure fades.
The author who held this position for me was Dave Eggers, whose A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius consumed my mind like few books ever have. I read it three times within a year. Unsurprisingly, this year was my freshman one at college, when young creative types are likely most open to having their worlds rocked.
It’s odd to reflect on how wowed I was by the book, how special I felt for “getting” it. Because I did, I felt like it marked me as elevated in an environment where we aspiring artists (read: creative writing students) jockeyed for supremacy in taste and creativity. While Heartbreaking Work tells a story—it is Eggers’ memoir, at least in theory, and it boasts a compelling premise—its raison d’être is the stylistic gymnastics he performs throughout. Reading it, I felt superior for getting past what I considered a bourgeois reliance on prose consistency and literary structure.
Heartbreaking Work reads like a series of novella-length stories smashed into one, with major connective tissue purposefully dropped. The book opens in a Chicago suburb, where Eggers’ parents die of cancer a few weeks apart. This section is rendered compassionately, and with comparable realism, until both parents are gone and Eggers takes his brother’s hand, “and we go through the windows and fly up and over the quickly sketched trees and then to California.”
The Eggers children settle in San Francisco, where Dave assumes casual custody of the much-younger Toph, a role he is far too immature to handle responsibly. This section remains a tour de force, brimming with exuberance and humor, the style helping to convey what it feels like to be young and unattached in a land of sunshine, to be “without floors or ceiling.”
The book then shifts rather abruptly to Eggers’ role in Might Magazine, which attempted to do for periodicals what Heartbreaking Work did for memoirs. Because Eggers spends more time on the magazine’s driving philosophy (or anti-philosophy) than on the actual work of its founding, this section seems to come out of nowhere—the magazine is up and running on its first mention. While I wasn’t surprised that I still enjoy the book’s first section, I expected the Might Magazine material to be dated on my latest re-read, though it’s actually a prescient look at both start-up culture and the alternative media that would arise in the social media age. (Might feels like a proto-Clickhole, with its obituaries of still-living celebrities and cover stories like “Are Black People Cooler Than White People?”) Perhaps what’s really dated is the memory of my own Might Magazine, which I “published” in my dorm and included such recurring features as a “Virginity Watch” for roommates who had sex. It is only now sinking in how truly insufferable I must have been.
Following Eggers’ long but ultimately unsuccessful audition for MTV’s The Real World, the book pivots to darker material. Idealism fades, privilege is questioned, patience thins at adult responsibilities. The overarching story mirrors that of Generation X itself, as people raised to believe they were unique and world-changing collide with a world that disagrees. Looking for an apartment, Eggers “had expected open arms from all, everyone grateful that we, as God’s tragic envoys, had stepped down from the clouds to consider dwelling in their silly little buildings. What we were getting was something eerily close to indifference.” One friend dies, another is grievously injured, but neither is developed or even really mentioned before these events, so they have little emotional impact. Eventually Eggers returns to Chicago to confront whether his life is one his parents would have been proud of.
That summary may sound relatively conventional, but this is an incredibly self-referential book, with characters alluding to themselves as characters and complaining about the roles they’re asked to play (“Find someone else to be symbolic of, you know, youth wasted or whatever,” snipes a reportedly suicidal friend). The prose jumps between the completely internal and the completely external—pages of stream of consciousness butt up against pages of unattributed dialogue exchanges—and deploys such tricks as diagrams and lists, even a musical notation at one point. Speech is sometimes rendered phonetically, in play format, and in screenplay format. And that doesn’t even include the 40-odd pages of stylistic throat-clearing that opens the proceedings, a section that features “Rules And Suggestions For Enjoyment Of This Book,” (“the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with”), an “Incomplete Guide To Symbols And Metaphors,” deleted scenes, even a breakdown of Eggers’ advance and how he spent it (“Copy of Xanadu Original Movie Soundtrack… $14.32”). He preempts criticism about the book’s title and self-referential aspects by admitting their clichéd aspects, and then preempts criticism about that by admitting the clichéd aspect of admitting the clichéd aspect.
I had never seen anything like this before, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my view of what a book could be or do. In the end, though, it turned out that Eggers was less a trailblazer than a follower of other experimental writers. When I mentioned my love of the book to a professor, he pointed me to David Foster Wallace, a writer who can not only set a young person’s mind aflame, but remain relevant after graduation (see also: Kurt Vonnegut). Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again outed Eggers as a stylistic imitator to my eyes—and sometimes a blatant copier, as in his use of footnotes, a well-established DFW trademark. Suddenly what had seemed revolutionary felt forced. Eggers’ book never held the same cachet again.
Eggers moved past Heartbreaking Work in a way that suggests he has similar thoughts about his name-making style. After an okay novel (You Shall Know Our Velocity) and short-story collection (How We Are Hungry) both written in a similar tone, he published two powerful works of non-fiction: Zeitoun, about Hurricane Katrina, and What Is The What, about a Sudanese refugee (a true story, but billed as a novel due to its literary elements). The two were notable for Eggers’ restraint as a writer, a sign of deference to the stories he was telling. He also co-wrote the screenplays to Away We Go and Where The Wild Things Are, both of which radiate an emotional sincerity he studiously guards against in his debut. His recent fiction like A Hologram For The King and The Circle looked at the theme of modern alienation and didn’t try to distract with the prose (admittedly, 2014’s all-dialogue novel Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is in a more experimental vein).
In Eggers’ defense, what he was doing in Heartbreaking Work wasn’t entirely a gimmick, though it was that, too. The style creates a distance between the reader and the emotions of the book—a not-inappropriate choice, given how the characters used irony and sarcasm as shields. The book’s self-referential aspects are basically irony and sarcasm codified into structure; Eggers is aware that some of his problems are ultimately small, and rebuking himself keeps his perspective in check.
At the same time, it isn’t as though his problems weren’t real to him, his emotions not genuinely felt. He employs this style—particularly toward the end, when the exhaustion Eggers-the-character feels by the end becomes palpable—like small doses of magical realism. Even though the debut wound up as something of an outlier in his career, the book makes it clear why Eggers-the-writer has remained a presence on the literary scene (his founding of the literary quarterly McSweeney’s—in particular the Voice Of Witness non-profit—also has a lot to do with it).
A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius will never again mean what what it did to me in 2004, when I was 18 and eager to be tested. The pleasure a reader gets from it rises and falls on their response to the stylistic elements, though the real emotion on the pages becomes clear once the impact of those choices fades. Even as the book no longer lives up to the second part of its title to me, it increasingly lives up to the first.