Sunday, September 14, 2008

Heartbreaking as well as staggering

When I came to San Francisco, I brought two books to reread: The Maltese Falcon and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I remembered that AHWOSG (so called for convenience's sake) deals with being a 20-something in the Bay Area: in the early 1990s, after Dave Eggers' parents had both died of cancer within weeks of each other, he and his little brother Toph moved to California to start afresh. I will probably post some Eggers quotes about San Francisco in the coming weeks, but now I want to discuss other aspects of his memoir, which, I now realize, is one of my Formative Books.

I first read AHWOSG the summer I was fifteen, at the time I was learning what "po-mo" means and why it's cool to be "meta." So I loved the book because I was basically amazed that you could do this kind of stuff in a memoir and get away with it. A jokey and rambling acknowledgments section; characters who break out of character to point out the writing techniques that Eggers is using; Eggers interviewing himself while pretending it is his audition for The Real World; an upside-down section of errata and corrections at the back of my softcover edition. All of this appealed to me because this was the point in my life when I became increasingly self-analytical (I started keeping a diary at age fourteen and a half; haven't stopped) and learned to think about thinking. You know, I read Gödel Escher Bach that same summer (what was I doing, reading these books at such a tender age?) and reading two such playful, digressive, self-conscious, uncategorizable books in quick succession must've expanded my mind...

So rereading AHWOSG, I can see how it influenced the way I view literature. But I also have a newfound appreciation for its emotional and thematic content. I am now the same age that Eggers was when his parents died, which makes his story seem that much more real and frightening to me. There's a section of the book where Eggers attempts to scatter his mother's ashes on Lake Michigan. I used to read this scene as a kind of comedy of errors; now the full horror and pain of the incident hits me viscerally.

Or, take Eggers' descriptions of his paranoid thoughts, e.g:
I messed up the words to the song I was singing, and though it was two fifty-one in the morning, I became quickly, deeply embarrassed about my singing gaffe, convinced that there was a very good chance that someone could see me--through the window, across the dark, across the street. I was sure, saw vividly that someone--or more likely a someone and his friends--over there was having a hearty laugh at my expense.

That must drive you insa--
Oh please. What would a brain do if not these sorts of exercises? I have no idea how people function without near-constant internal chaos. I'd lose my mind.
Six years ago, I might have mildly chuckled and thought "Boy, that guy has problems!" But now, rereading it, I guffawed out loud because I recognized it. I feel the same way: what was my brain designed to do, if not to brood and obsess and spiral off into hypothetical or counterfactual tangents? Ah, and now I am a little scared of what will happen if I ever have kids: many of Eggers' paranoid thoughts involve awful things happening to Toph, and I suspect that I will have similar thoughts if I'm ever a parent. My mom, who is also an AHWOSG fan, says that one of her favorite aspects of the book is how it evokes the challenges of parenting; and I used to discount that, thinking it was really a story about the power and promise and terror of youth. But those two themes are related, aren't they, after all?

Eggers' thoughts on fame, self-disclosure, and the act of memoir-writing feel newly relevant to me as well. In 2000, when AHWOSG was published, hardly anyone had a blog; I couldn't have predicted that I'd eventually spend so much time blogging and reading Web-based New Media. But Eggers' writing about the rise of the self-disclosure culture--"We've grown up thinking of ourselves in relation to the political-media-entertainment ephemera, in our safe and comfortable homes [... We] are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, impossible"--now seems downright prescient in this age of Facebook et cetera. I also relate to his tortured, self-conscious thoughts about wanting fame, wanting to do something world-changing and triumphant, but being disgusted by the thought of coming across as a vapid fame-whore. I know some people say that Eggers comes across as exactly that...but to me, AHWOSG is the furthest thing from vapid.

Image of Dave Eggers from

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