A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Straight on the heels of Zeitoun’s spectacular reading experience, I picked up A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the Dave Eggers book I’d actually had on my reading list. It is creative non-fiction like Zeitoun, but that is where the similarities stop. AHWOSG is personal, about Eggers in his 20’s, where Zeitoun is reported, and reported without incorporating the author into the story. AHWOSG is written by a first-time author who didn’t expect his words to be read; Zeitoun is written by the same author many books later, with dramatic improvements in craft and a tightened attention to fact-checking. AHWOSG is a raw, sprawling gesture of art about a time that was personally traumatic for Eggers to experience and write; Zeitoun is a compact, finely edited book about an equally emotional set of events which didn’t personally involve or traumatize Eggers. I think Zeitoun was a much more successful book, but AHWOSG is still engaging, ambitious, and above all comforting to aspiring writers interested in the lives of artists before they make it.

(Photo: Amy Attas)

AHWOSG needs a hard edit. Eggers knows this. He admits in the “Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of This Book” that “there is no overwhelming need to read the preface. Really. It exists mostly for the author… Actually, many of you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239-351… Matter of fact, the first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with.” In the appendix he admits that the main events of the book were traumatizing to write and some pages were never reread, which explains the looseness of the writing. As frustrating as it is to read so far into the author’s inner monologue that the entire book is called into doubt, it also brings sympathy and patience. Maybe the book is a rare honest look at personal trauma, and readers should put up with haggard writing if it offers a glimpse of true suffering. Or maybe real life is messy, and anyone who manages brevity is missing the breadth and depth of truth. But no, that still doesn’t excuse this, the opening paragraph of the book, which is a simple description of a house where it’s clear the author is working very hard to be artistic, and it pales in comparison to effortless descriptions of houses from Zeitoun:

Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic. Exhaust from the dryer billows out of the house and up, breaking apart while tumbling into the white sky.

The house is a factory.

The idea with the book is that it experiments with form and style in order to more accurately replicate truth and memory and personal bias. But it doesn’t experiment very much, and most of the footnotes and corrections are about Eggers’s own writing skill, not his memory of the story. This makes a traditional, straightforward memoir feel much more appropriate. The “interview” in the middle, where Eggers is ostensibly auditioning for a reality show, feels like a lazy gimmick to slip in a bunch of anecdotes and opinions that wouldn’t otherwise belong. And then Eggers writes, right in the “interview”:

So tell me something: This isn’t really a transcript of the interview, is it?
It’s not much like the actual interview at all, is it?
Not that much, no.
This is a device, this interview style. Manufactured and fake.
It is.
It’s a good device, though. [Eggers’s invented interviewer compliments Eggers-the-writer here] Kind of a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.

And it was at this sentence, or shortly thereafter, that I gave myself permission to start skimming. I didn’t give up completely, because Young-Eggers still has an interesting perspective on the world, and First-Draft-Eggers still writes beautiful images. The central relationship between Eggers and his younger brother is a joy to read, as are Eggers’s descriptions of the accoutrements of modern American parenting – a role he’s flung into when his own parents die. There is a Grade A steak in this book, you just have to cut through a lot of cow to find it.

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