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Irony with Soul: Dave Eggers Writes the Hippest of Memoirs

Dave Eggers, the 29-year-old author of one of this season's hottest books, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," thinks people do not understand the word irony. In a complex and probing interview, Eggers explains why his latest literary endeavour defies irony, why writing shouldn't be so serious, and why -- at a time when people are fed up with tear-jerking books on incest and miserable childhoods -- his memoir is being hailed as the voice of Generation X.
 
 
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Dave Eggers, the 29-year-old author of one of this season's hottest books, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," thinks people do not understand the word irony. "Nobody knows what it means," he says. "And it is used to describe, well -- if somebody uses footnotes, that's called irony; and if somebody has a character address the reader out of character, that's called irony; if someone's sarcastic, it's irony; if someone's nihilistic, it's irony. I think people have gotten really lazy about the definition."Eggers is defensive on the subject of irony because of what it can connote -- moral turpitude, coy escapism and, in the case of literature, a cleverness that grates -- and because it has been used to describe almost all of his literary endeavors. Might, his defunct San Francisco-based Gen X zine best known for falsifying the death of child TV star Adam Rich, was hailed by Newsweek as "funny, knowing and wryly on-target." McSweeney's, the chic literary quarterly he now runs out of Brooklyn, is, to Eggers' dismay, constantly being described as ironic. And his first book, an anti-memoir about raising his kid brother after the death of his parents, has received the same adjectival treatment ("goofy and intensely ironic" are the words Vince Passaro used in a Harper's Bazaar review)."Making light of something is the opposite of irony," says Eggers. "People take making a magazine very seriously and they take, you know, the writing of a book very seriously and all that garbage. I'm just out to sort of lighten it up."Lighten it up he has. "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" has no sacred cows. It is at once a spoof on self-reflection and a rigorous attempt to upend the conventions of memoir writing. In a relentlessly self-mocking, irreverent style, reminiscent of the jocular blitzkrieg of early Tom Wolfe, Eggers describes the events he can never forget but refuses to sentimentalize: the death of his parents from unrelated cancers within a five-week period; his assumption of fatherly duties at age 21 to his 8-year-old brother, Toph; and their tragicomic journey in Berkeley, and later San Francisco, as the most bizarre and extraordinary of American families.

"Toph and I are the future," writes Eggers, "a terrifyingly bright future, a future that has come from Chicago, two terrible boys from far away, cast away and left for dead, shipwrecked, forgotten, but yet, but yet, here, resurfaced, bolder and more fearless, bruised and unshaven, sure, their pant legs frayed, their stomachs full of salt water, but now unstoppable, insurmountable, read to kick the saggy asses of the gray-haired, thickly bespectacled, slump-shouldered of Berkeley's glowering parentiscenti!"Eggers clearly has no interest in prose that sounds self-righteous or self-important. Yet because he writes mostly about himself, his thoughts and his most personal experiences, his memoir is bound up in a literary conundrum whose Houdini-like escape is the most staggering and ingenious aspect of his work. Nothing is spared for the sake of seriousness here, not the phlegm that pours from his dying mother's mouth, not his terror at entering adulthood as a father to his brother.
His memoir is even prefaced with "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoying this Book," a meandering treatise that offers such prankish bon mots as "an incomplete guide" to the book's metaphors and symbols; a flow chart, detailing the psychological consequences of his parents' deaths; and, yes, an ironical summary of the book's "major themes," such as "The Knowingness About the Book's Self-Conscious Aspect."Even the copyright page is an attempt to undercut the seriousness that a published book portends: "Published in the United States," it reads, "by Simon & Schuster, a division of a larger more powerful company called Viacom Inc., which is wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, all of Central America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled."People in the publishing business are giving the book raves and applauding his skewering of their industry. Time magazine has done a spread. The New Yorker has published an excerpt. And Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times book critic who makes and breaks young writers' careers, has called Eggers "staggeringly talented," his book "a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew."What is so fascinating -- and for some readers, so intensely annoying -- about "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is that Eggers writes page after buoyant page without ever letting up on the war with himself, his project and everyone else in his crowded head. His book falls into the queer category of postmodern autobiography, which makes an art out of anticipating criticism and a farce out of sincerity. It is also, like much of David Foster Wallace's work, consumed with verbal high jinks and the often benumbing goal of inventiveness.
"You can't write Dickensian stuff anymore," says Eggers. "It's fraudulent, it doesn't really acknowledge the information that's in our head. It's just another pose, if you don't address questions of form."Part of the critical popularity of Eggers' book, no doubt, is that he is playing with the form -- and especially the tone -- typical of memoirs at a time when people are fed up with tear-jerking books on incest and miserable childhoods. Eggers claims never to have read a memoir before picking up Mary McCarthy's "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood," which a friend recommended because McCarthy did what Eggers had intended to do: write an appendix to the book, documenting fictional licenses. "Because McCarthy had already done it," says Eggers, "I scrapped the idea."Asked why he is so hung up on "making it new," Eggers replies that ambitious writers today have no other choice. Yet he is wary of postmodern penmen whose work is cold beneath their stylistic surface or who take themselves too seriously.
"If there's a heart at the core, then these are just tools," say Eggers. "Sometimes there isn't -- and that's the worst element of postmodernism -- there's no soul. But when there's both, it's great." He finds writers like John Barth "kind of humorless" as opposed to Kurt Vonnegut, "who basically does many of the same things with form [as Barth] but with a much wider readership in mind, with a certain levity to it."Eggers cannot be accused of being cold. For all fun and farce of his book, his story of his parents' hideous deaths and his subsequent odd fatherhood is often moving, and his voice, manic and puerile, is sympathetic, especially to those under 35. Although Eggers says he is "the last person who would embody anything for anyone else," by virtue of his book sales (the first edition of his book is selling out) and the types who crowd his readings (mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings of the slacker variety) -- not to mention the buzz surrounding McSweeney's -- it is fairly obvious that he is being embraced as the voice of his generation.Indeed, the second half of his book depicts the days and nights of his Gen X crowd in San Francisco, who through their magazine Might want to breathe fire and make the world over in their image -- to lead a kind of brilliant, unco-optable rebellion -- but who find themselves stumped because they have nothing much to protest.
"It's not that we don't want to support them," Eggers writes of do-gooders and progressive nonprofit organizations, "because we do...it's just that, given little to no contact with economic insecurity of any kind, we have a hard time finding the fire in the belly for such things. We want to join them in complaining about the burdens of student loans, but then remember that of all of us, only Moodie had to take them on. We want to complain about jobs, but we don't really want jobs ourselves -- not the kind you'd complain about -- so quickly fall mute. And Social Security? Well, personally at the least, I cannot in my wildest fantasies see myself making it past fifty or fifty-five, so find the issue moot. All we really want is for no one to have a boring life, to be impressive, so we can be impressed."Eggers is well aware that he has come of age in a world where revolt has become handmaiden to style -- and where white men of his ilk are not necessarily on the vanguard of radical social politics. But, for him, this is all fodder for outrageous comedy, an opportunity to embrace his group's devolution from smug radicals to infinite jesters.
"Can you not see what I represent?" he tells the casting agent in the chapter devoted to his audition for MTV's The Real World. "I am both a) martyred moralizer and b) amoral omnivore born out of the suburban vacuum + idleness + television + Catholicism + alcoholism + violence; I am a freak in secondhand velour, a leper who uses L'Oreal Anti-sticky Mega Gel. I am rootless, ripped from all the foundations, an orphan raising an orphan and wanting to take away everything there is and replace it with the stuff I've made."Eggers is a triumphalist of Gen X mores, whose literary weapon of choice, whether he likes it or not, whether he admits it or not, is self-knowing irony. This is true for David Foster Wallace. It is true for the majority of critics who write for hip new magazines like Salon. And it is true for much of the writing Eggers has published in McSweeney's and its accompanying Web site ( www.mcsweeneys.net). Riding close on the coattails of a generation who could claim the radical mantle and bearing the influence of writers like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis who approached the culture of narcissism and commercial exploitation as a fresh subject, Eggers has done the obvious and embraced the ironic mode.
Yet his is an irony with an underbelly, fueled by a recognition that the desire to express the self today is a comic project requiring heavy doses of skepticism and self-effacement. One can only hope, however, that the success of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" will not spawn a slew of ironical memoirs.