The rambling and dissociated charm of David Eggers continues to hold me in several links of ambivilence as I was selling my first editions of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, two books by him that I read and endured, as opposed to enjoyed. All the proverbial flashes of talent are there, knock out metaphors, grace sentences, but then there is the winded wheeze of the man in a hurry, telling is tale and details too rapidly. It was less that I was giving up prestige holdings for filthy lucre than it was that Eggers can't wait to get the end when he happens upon an interesting notion for a narrative, a story.
David Eggers tries to disarm readers with the ironic intention of the title, and it's worked, it seems. I smell bullshit, though. For all the self-reflective contrivances he forces himself to build, for all the zany-escapade tone he lets rip through the pages, Eggers doesn't sound as if he's able to get a handle on his own story, and in fact, I sense a certain glee, underneath the expected incomprehension and shock of the death of both his parents and the sudden weight of responsibility, that all this bad luck was happening to him because oh boy, I have something to write about, oh boy boy oh boy!!!
In my college days, I used to go out with friends and get do all kinds of fucked up things so we can have "experiences" to write about, and any kind of bad luck streak that would happen to one of our future-Hemingway pals would make us perversely envious: that raw material would make for some fine writing. We used to joke, in fact, as to how many pages a particular stunt or even would avail us. The actual writing his mindset produced among us was , in large part, arrogant, grandiose, inflated, mannered, untempered by real empathy, clotted up with bookish conceits that made reading them a dreary endurance. My apologies to those I inflicted these pages on. Egger's book is the shock of recognition. It's a pity, however, that this story had to become material for yet another book that short-sheets the strength of the story line in order to wallow in the psuedo-problems current brands of lit-crit have created. This is a case where neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted. If he'd saved this narrative and did the harder work of transforming it into a novel, a deliberate fiction of some kind, this Mad-magazine style autocritique might have worked: it does not, and what we have is a tone of constant anxiety: this kid wants to get off the stage, but keeps talking anyway, incessantly, hoping something clicks. What Eggers needed here, and will need in the future, is an editor who can use the blue pencil, and is willing to send pages back for rewrite. Eggers problem is stylistic rather than factual. The grating , unearned irony he structures Heartbreaking with simply makes his personality unreadable. I am an ogre for stylish writing, but the preening Eggers has here simply destroyed the story. Eggers book is something I endured, not enjoyed. The shock of recognition. "Unearned irony" is the deployment of a dominant narrative line that is the nominal subject of the story, while at the same time winking and whispering and nudging the reader that it's ,like, so wierd. This eye-rolling irony dominates the book , and avoids the work needed to make real irony work, which is that real irony is the result of several situations in the narrative being developed, over time short or long, that result in nuanced epiphany where a character in the story is at odds with the "real world" he inhabits. It's power resides in the not knowing when the effect takes place: the point is that you're not supposed to see the irony approaching, best shown in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, or The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. The effects here are worked for artfully. Eggers stops just short of announcing that he's being ironic. A magician who shows how their tricks are done perhaps ought not to be a magician: maybe an editor. Or a literary critic. Now that would be ironic. For editors, it is precisely the job of an editor to make manuscripts into books, to eleminate the fat, to blue pencil digressions and areas of receding interest and, believe, send pages back for rewrite. The tendency is to let manuscripts, "experimental" or otherwise, get sent to the press without editorial oversight. It's a waste of perfectly good forest. Wisdom needn't be the censor that kicks in after a certain age, but it can have the effect of giving one a sense of how an interesting life can be told in an interesting way, ironic or otherwise. Best of all, though, an acquired wisdom ought to avail one with a self-editing instinct and to realize the difference telling a story and committing coffee talk to paper.