A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS By Dave Eggers Simon & Schuster 375 pp., $23
I hadn't planned to review David Eggers's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" until Yvonne, an editor here in national news, pointed out a flattering author profile in The Boston Globe that referred to an even more flattering review by Michiko Kakutani, a critic at the Globe's parent company, The New York Times.
Ms. Kakutani has won a Pulitzer Prize, and so her praise should not to be taken lightly, except by other people who have won Pulitzer Prizes, unlike this reviewer, who desperately wants to win a Pulitzer Prize, but will continue referring to the prize committee with disdain until such time as he does.
There are so many reasons to dislike this super-hip, self-consciously ironic autobiography that it's something of a disappointment to report how wonderful it is.
One would think that after David Foster Wallace's infinite "Infinite Jest," or John Barth's unreadably sophisticated stories, or even Vladimir Nabokov's experiments,1 there wouldn't be much left for this kind of literary trickster to do.
What saves this book, which I found a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, is not the linguistic pranks (which are often very, very funny), but the tender story of Eggers's desperate love for his eight-year-old brother after the death of their parents.2 I can't think of anyone who captures the delight and terror of parenthood as well as Eggers does here. (Readers who can, should send their entries on a white index card to The Monitor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115. The winner will be announced in this space March 15.)3
At an age when most young men are finishing college and thinking about their tans, Eggers must choose a good school for little Toph, get him to eat something besides Freetos, and find the lizard in his bedroom. "Each day," he writes, "feels like some fantastic trick - an escape from the jaws of death, the hiding of the Statue of Liberty."
Squeezed in that parental vice of having to justify rare moments of relaxation against the infinite responsibilities of raising a child, Eggers can barely talk to his friends without being haunted by visions of the psychotic babysitter torturing Toph back at the house.4
In the rich, frenetic new world of Berkeley, Calif., Eggers and his friends start up a wickedly irreverent magazine called Might for the twentysomething set. Money is all around them, but frustratingly elusive. They court a variety of wealthy young people and struggle earnestly "to articulate the fact that we wanted to be successful without being seen as successful-successful, wanted to keep doing what we were doing, with the option of opting out if we ever got bored, wanted to conquer the world in a way that no one would be able to tell that's what we wanted, trying not to let on how tired we all were, how unsure we were that we really wanted to do any of this anymore."
Appropriately, a big chunk of the book also describes Eggers's attempt to get a part on MTV's "Real World." The faux-reality show about a group of real young people acting as though they're not really being filmed is a perfect venue for an autobiographer who's constantly watching his readers watch him watching himself.5 (Eggers is currently on a nationwide publicity tour claiming he doesn't like all this attention.)
Of course, his book isn't for everyone (people who don't speak English will find it particularly oblique), but this may be the bridge from the Age of Irony to Some Other As Yet Unnamed Age that we've been waiting for.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.6
1 I have not actually read these works, but I was intimidated by people who referred to them in grad school.
2 Beware: The first chapter, which describes their deaths from cancer, is detailed and gruesome.
3 The Monitor disavows any connection to this unauthorized contest. All entries will be returned unopened.
4 Note to my babysitter: Yes, that video camera is on. Do not touch it till we return.
5 I can see you rereading that tortured sentence.
6 Please clean out your desk before leaving today. - David Cook, editor in chief
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society