A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers and Reality Television
Dave Eggers’s satirical and self-referential memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius documents his external and internal life. While the book is technically a work of nonfiction, Eggers externalizes and exposes much of his personal life through internal thoughts and ideas that were not necessarily represented in real-time, as they are in the book. Eggers seems to be attempting to create an environment in which the performance and charade of social interaction and the act of writing a book are both combined with actual experiences and emotions, highlighting dramatic portions and exaggerating issues. Simultaneously, he normalizes these extreme experiences that are highlighted, creating so many that the overview of his life seems to be part of a specific theme. In my experience, this seems to be what reality television aims to do. Eggers’s interaction with the ideas of exploitation, created stories and dialogue, and satire around celebrity, fame, and other elements gives him a close relationship with the concept of reality television – something that is almost real, but not quite (in a very intentional way).
Firstly, Eggers comments on his own tendency to treat people as usable characters for his own benefit, much as reality TV is portrayed, by using Toph as a critical mechanism. Toph asserts, “But don’t you see this is a kind of cannibalism? That you’re just grabbing at people, toys from a box, dressing them up, taking them apart, ripping their heads off, discarding them […]” (318-319). Eggers then points to the psychology behind the choice to treat people in this way, particularly those who are famous. Toph, or Eggers-as-Toph, again argues at Eggers in regard to his slandering interviews: “These people have already attained, at whatever age, a degree of celebrity that you assholes will never reach, and you feel, deep down, that because there is no life before or after this, that fame is, essentially, God—all you people know that, believe it, even if you don’t admit it” (317). He claims that Eggers uses his position because it “gives power over [celebrities], the ability to embarrass [them], to equalize the terrible imbalance you feel about your relationship to those who project their charisma directly, not sublimated through snarky little magazines” (317). In this way, Eggers claims his position as an intellectual, somehow above those at whom he pokes fun; this is yet another shield (one of the many we have seen thus far in the memoir) that Eggers uses to protect his intense vulnerability, derived from his situation and his personality in general.
Interestingly enough, however, Eggers also writes about himself in a way that evokes reality television. Reality television seems to be designed to expose others’ lives and reveal some kinds of secret. They also act as ways to produce drama, often artificial, and create entertainment in general with a hefty plot often riddled with complications (also known as drama). Eggers battles with himself constantly throughout the memoir about his struggle between creating something of a dramatic “exposé” and creating a heartfelt way to relieve pain; it is somewhat up to the reader to decide whether or not the exposing of his loved ones and other elements of his life is worth the ultimate mourning tool he gains. Reality television, of course, is generally not an author-made grieving mechanism and is designed intentionally to expose entirely. If the reader considers Eggers’s reflections as a dramatic betrayal of his family, the similarities between the two are astonishing. Eggers brings forth drama for the reader with everything from simple lines in an interview and the acknowledgement of his exciting life (“Dramatic, right” (233)?) to small incidents which, in the scheme of his life, seem somewhat trivial, that he escalates to huge levels (“I’m dying” (307).). While the exploitation may not be seen as an incredibly important or relevant theme in Eggers’s memoir, he may want it to be apparent and to seem like a reality show.
Reality shows advertise their drama prominently, yet the stories of these shows still have an underlying plot of some kind, or at least a premise on which they should be focusing; Eggers does the same thing by whining, seeking attention, and being an overall quite loud narrator, and yet crafting a story that is artful and beautiful beyond this popular culture phenomenon. After all, Eggers constantly makes references to the importance of himself, the need to be famous, and his desire to be on MTV; what better way to achieve this long-awaited fame than to create one’s own reality show centered around the most important character of all—himself?
Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: The Game of Pain
Dave Eggers is a playful author, wiling to experiment and take risks for his audience. At the same time, Eggers is aware of his ploys and sometimes uses these games as a way to pawn off the tragedies that happened to him over the course of the book. While gamesmanship and pain seem mutually exclusive, in Dave Eggers’ case, they are far from. Eggers uses unconventional formatting and the use of a double narrative to better exemplify the uniqueness and intricacies of the tragedies he experiences, proving that pain and humor can coexist. Particularly within the front matter of the book, Eggers explores his self-conscious relationship to the hardships he faces to both mask and uncover vulnerability; he combines humor and games with suffering to prove he has nothing to prove.
Eggers begins his book with a page left entirely blank except for large letters centered in the middle of the page reading, “THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.” This can be read in a variety of ways. Eggers was not asked to write this book. Eggers feels guilty for writing this book. Eggers or others are angry about this book’s publication or what it says. The entire memoir can be read in reference to this first note. Several times, Eggers refers back to it indirectly within the body of his narrative, creating false dialogues with Toph, John, the MTV interviewer, and himself to capture the guilt and uncertainty Eggers feels about recording the details of this memoir. These moments being placed within the actual content of the book show a disregard for the integrity of the story as it is, in real time; rather, Eggers places an importance on the feelings one gets while reading or writing; he creates arguments for and against himself within the narrative, playing a metaphorical game of Frisbee catch with himself as he works through the reality of his pain. These games are played partially for his audience and partially for himself. “While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality,” the author states in his acknowledgements section. He is self-absorbed, but also purposefully so, creating an environment in which layers of narrative can be found and dissected until the root of Eggers’ pain is no longer even visible. In this way, Eggers’ tricks and ploys work to cover, detract from, and argue against his vulnerable, mourning state.
Eggers is obsessed with being entirely honest and straightforward. Most authors would be unconcerned with creating a nonfiction work with not entirely authentic dialogue, but Eggers feels the need to set the record straight. “This is a work of fiction,” he write on the copyright page, “only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could.” Even this directness feels like a ploy; who takes such great care to set up credibility, and on the copyright page, a place that is supposed to be entirely free of subjectivity, no less? He continues on this vein in his preface (ix-xvii), including notes on the authenticity of dialogue, characters, other elements, and even the omissions from the book. Why is Eggers being so honest? It is disarming for the reader, creating both a sense of security and of unsureness for the control freak that Eggers is portraying. While Eggers’ earnestness could read as entirely dry and without humor, one must read it as something else, perhaps satirical, as the content he suggests is occasionally raunchy and unconventional in nature (“Some really great sex scenes were omitted, at the request of those who are now married or involved” (xi).). Eggers seems to be prefacing the reader with a fake-out as the reader attempts to guess which direction he is headed; he admits that there is great tragedy in the book, yet he hints only at lightheartedness and frivolity.
Yet another ploy of Eggers is his addressing of the major themes of the book. Most authors allow readers to discover and interpret on their own, but Eggers works to lay out every detail in a way in which he will not be misconstrued or overanalyzed. These themes, as he addresses them in the acknowledgements, include, “the painfully, endlessly self-conscious book aspect “the telling the world of suffering as means of flushing or at least diluting of pain aspect,” “the putting this all down as tool for stopping time given the overlap with fear of death aspect,” “the part where the author either exploits or exalts his parents, depending on your point of view,” “the memoir as act of self-destruction aspect,” “the easy and unconvincing nihilistic poseurism re: full disclosure of one’s secrets and pain, passing it off under a semi-high-minded guise when in fact the author is himself very private about many or most matters, though he sees the use in making certain facts and happenings public,” and “the fact that, below, or maybe next to, the self-righteousness, and the self-hatred, is a certain hope, instilled far before any of this happened.” There. The author addresses nearly every possible interpretation of his memoir, to the point that the reader need not analyze further. Yet, it seems this only acts as a shield; the reader sees these themes and knows there is more. Eggers perhaps attempts to prevent the reader from digging further by providing for them, but, in the end, the reader must discover for themselves how the book will be. Eggers is “very private about many or most matters,” and, as the last theme he mentions points out, attempts to hide the most important aspects for himself by disguising them under the ploys of larger themes and knowingness. This works, too, for the most part, through his guides and instruction to the reader about how to read, but Eggers cannot entirely hide his pain through these elaborate guises, partially meant to distract and confuse the reader, partially meant to act as a replacement for interpretation. The reader, if one looks closely enough, can see through his games and observe the psychological implications of which Eggers is victim.
Overall, Eggers is a master at his craft. Without intense analysis and close reading, the reader will most likely accept Eggers’ stance and personal commentary within his metanarrative and front material, allowing the defined sets of metaphors, symbols, and analysis to take over their reading experience. However, there are holes in Eggers’ grand plan that give way to the tragedy he faces. One of these holes is the tragedy itself. Eggers is so self-conscious and psychologically wounded by the events of his life that he cannot address them without a ploy in mind; the lightheartedness with which he writes about his parents’ deaths and his loved ones reads as an elaborate mask. While Eggers’ gamesmanship hides his pain and vulnerability, it also acts to help him work through it, giving way to pain and showing it quite clearly.
Eggers: Purpose and Form and Deviations from the Expected
Dave Eggers utilizes unusual formatting tactics to present his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, including a lengthy introduction and acknowledgements section, inauthentic dialogue, personal commentary, and even an unconventional copyright page. The deviation from expected norms in the memoir genre can be seeded out even through the tone of Eggers-as-narrator. While the book focuses on tragedy, loss, and mourning, it is often funny, uplifting, sarcastic, and disturbingly light. This unexpected turn from what one might assume would be a dark, twisted, depressing piece of literature brings much-needed authenticity to the story, revealing the truth behind oft-fetishized tragedies like orphan-hood. The way in which Eggers constructs his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is, in fact, genius, and lends itself to the content quite well; unconventional writing forms may be the only proper way to write as intended, that is, authentically, about heartbreakingly tragic events.
Eggers’ book can be divided into two “books,” according to Elise Miller, which consist of “an autobiographical narrative about unbearable suffering, and a book of critical commentary, a psychoanalysis, as it were, of the particular challenges of writing a memoir about catastrophic loss and trauma” (Miller 985-986). This division of form brings Eggers into commentary with himself, leading to self-reflection in the highest extent. This self-reflection “both [draw] the readers in, and [warn] about the traps of sincerity and authenticity in personal narrative” (Smith et. al.). The connection between reader and author becomes intimate, due to the way information and emotions are shared. Baer argues that “the incredible diversity of self-reflexive literature […] offers rich ways of reflecting upon human emotional experience as a personal, social, and political phenomenon” (Abstract). This human experience is understood both separately from Eggers’ overarching narrative and in coexistence with it, something some critics argue should not be done. Polvinen, however, advocates for the combination of the two narratives. Polvinen argues that fiction should be understood both critically and emotionally at the same time, claiming these two methods of reading can be used in conversation with one another. “In the case of fiction, the idea of imaginatively and emotionally immersing ourselves in a fictional world implies an internal perspective that changes to an external one as soon as we view the fiction as an artefact” (Polvinen 166). In Eggers’ work, this method is useful to distinguish Eggers’ meaning in both narratives – his story of events and his commentary on himself, or, the external and internal narratives. It is imperative to consider Eggers’ two narratives at the same time, as intended by the author; Dave Eggers makes his intentions for this novel incredibly clear in every aspect, laying out guidelines for reading prefacing the book and displaying control freak-like tendencies throughout the memoir, so close reading without considering intentionality and emotion is doing a disservice to the book and its form.
Eggers’ form between his two narratives also displays his vulnerability. While his primary story, about the tragedy of his parents’ deaths and his coping with them, shows authenticity, grittiness, and perhaps exhibitionist tendencies, his metanarrative covers any places he may have exposed, building a shield around himself out of his personal commentaries and rebuttals. Eggers writes for several reasons in addition to releasing and covering his vulnerability and his form exemplifies them all. He writes fast and furiously, with little editing, in order to “spit out” his pain to avoid the dyspepsia of keeping emotions in (Eggers 210); he writes to save himself. This sometimes leads to the revealing of an excess of information, displaying to the public much of his personal life – and that of his close family and friends. After this, however, his metanarrative comes into play in similar ways in which it covers his vulnerability; the metanarrative works to dispose of the guilt Eggers may feel for exposing the lives of himself and his family; while his writing works to objectify his experiences to help him cope (Miller 987), it also works to prove to his audience that he is compassionate, or at least worthy of sympathy or understanding. Eggers is extremely defensive of his writing and purposes for writing; examples of this can be seen in Eggers’ MTV interview section (Eggers 214-217), unreal dialogues with Toph and John (Eggers 272-275, 315-219), and other instances in which Eggers anticipates negative reader reactions and attacks them before they can develop further. It seems that the metanarrative is created almost entirely for the purpose of proving Eggers’ innocence to his audience.
The self-conscious nature of Eggers’ voice speaks a truth to the process of writing and publishing that cannot be seen if the metanarrative is not included, creating a realistic relatability allows for an emotional tie with the readers. Baer points this out a bit, claiming, “Perhaps the most obvious way in which self-conscious narrative reflects upon emotional experience is found in its emphasis on the presence, roles, and interactions of storyteller and audience” (Baer 17). This interaction is essential for full understanding and immersion into any story; because of it, the audience feels included and respected. According to Brian Stonehill, “By acknowledging what they are, self-conscious novels show and honesty and a respect for the reader’s intelligence which novels that pretend to be life itself do not. There is thus an alienation of the reader from the novel’s action at one level[…] while at another level the reader, by being made conscious of his or her role as a listener confronted by a storyteller, is drawn into a stronger bond of intimacy” (Baer 16). Dave Eggers demonstrates his authorial prowess by showing his understanding of this element and using it to its full extent.
Eggers’ structure and form, including the metanarrative, has often been misunderstood, according to Baer. “The misunderstanding of metafiction as needlessly complex and obscure reflects how the category has frequently been misunderstood and dismissed” (Baer 4). The inward-facing nature of works like Eggers may seem to some critics insignificant, turning away from larger, more important world issues, but this is not always the case. “Though some critics might argue that an ‘obsession’ with inwardness indicates a narcissism that is disengaged with larger social conditions, a look at the metafictional works selected for this project indicates that self-reflexive literature can be, and often is, a means through which readers may further recognize the relationships that exist not only between fiction and empirical experience, but also between the individual and the social and the emotional and the cognitive” (Baer 17). In fact, the self-referential metanarrative of Eggers’ memoir points to large significance. According to Baer, self-consciousness in narrative often points to significant historical moments, as this is when this pattern in writing often emerges in time (6). As a postmodern style, self-referential writing calls attention to world events through a unique perspective, calling within the self for information about the outside. “Metafiction […], by drawing attention to human, social, and personal experience, engages itself in questions about how we make sense of those experiences, especially through affect” (Baer 7). Eggers uses his unique perspective heavily to comment on American culture in the 1990s, parenting and social climate, and his family issues. As Carusi says, “The reader comes to know Eggers not for the events he experienced but for the way he constructs those events through his narrative” (3). Without subjective insertions of his present self in the writing, a far less personal view of a highly personal situation would be seen.
This personal significance has effect on the reader, but the author also draws certain results from this element. The affective nature of Eggers’ story holds the same weight as many other pieces in the genre of grief literature. Dawn Carusi performs interesting research about orphaned storytellers in her “Narratives of Orphaned Adults: Journey to Restoration.” She suggests particular forms are consistent among stories of grief, like Eggers’, like the balance between guilt and innocence. She provides an interesting perspective regarding Eggers and the climate of loss, providing examples from his own work to prove his role in grieving. “Eggers is applauded for the painfully honest account of the mistakes he makes in the caring for and grieving for his parents. The self-conscious ironic forms of his writings function by enabling him to share the most unsavory details of his story,” claims Carusi, “it serves a function beyond its aesthetic. Eggers (2001) writes that putting this narrative down is a tool for stopping time, collapsing time, vindicating his self-worth, exploiting and exalting his parents. Eggers, like all of us, constructs his world through the story he tells” (Carusi 2-3).
Carusi explains many of the quirks of Eggers’ writing through his explanation of grief writing and its patterns. Firstly, Carusi argues that Eggers writes because, “Without the opportunity for self disclosure and story creation, the would-be narrator might suffer from lack of catharsis” (7). While this is true, and Eggers does seem to use his memoir as an outlet for mourning and closure, there are a plethora of other reasons Eggers writes as well, including memorializing his parents, creating new order and meaning (Carusi addresses this: “An individual’s story provides a method to make order out of the disordered characters, events, and happenings central to a disrupted experience” (Carusi 34).), and saving himself from dyspepsia. Miller argues: “if he is to avoid his mother’s fate, Eggers must use writing as a way to discharge the aggression, culpability, and repulsion he eschews digesting” (998). Carusi does shed light on the idea of saving the self through story-telling, as Eggers does; according to her, it is a fairly common urge from orphaned storytellers. “For many adult children, the role of caregiver is fraught with anxiety. Since death is inevitable, the caregiver child is doomed to fail in one sense or another” (Carusi 77). This sense of doom must be overcome somehow, and so is placed into the need for self-preservation. “The narrators see illness as something to be overcome,” if not by their parents, then by themselves, “so that the body can be restored to its original condition” (Carusi 34). Still, Carusi fails to consider the need to memorialize the deceased and instead, in probability, groups Eggers into the category of experiencing complicated grief, as defined by Carusi: “Complicated grief may result when certain high-risk factors are present in the bereaved’s experience with loss […] in all forms of complicated mourning, there are attempts to do two things: 1) to deny, repress, or avoid aspects of the loss, its pain, and the full realization of its implications for the mourner, and 2) hold onto and avoid relinquishing the lost loved one” (Carusi 17). These two steps can be interpreted in Eggers’ form in different ways. They can be seen as relating to the two “books” or narratives of Eggers’ memoir, connecting holding on to the primary narrative and avoidance of loss with the metanarrative. They can also be considered in Eggers’ story itself, beginning with avoidance and denial and ending in holding on or acknowledging the lasting importance of his parents, particularly in the last scene of Eggers scattering his mother’s ashes. While Carusi makes valid points concerning Eggers and the orphan narrative, several holes remain that set Eggers apart from the canon, proving his uniqueness in style, form, and intention.
Eggers shows a longing for celebrity and fame throughout his memoir, from the compliments he pays himself (“Can I sing or what” (48)?) to his longing to be on The Real World (“Of course I wanted to be asked to audition, wanted them to see all there is to see in me […]” (183)) to every self-important, self-referencing comment he makes on himself. His self-importance, or longing for it, play into the form of his narrative in a huge way, taking over the metanarrative and the course of main events, circling the organization of the story around the parts of his life that could lead to eminence and rebuke, as well as the popular culture of the 1990s, of which he asserts to be well-informed. He ensures that he teaches Toph the important cultural knowledge of the era, explaining, “Though he has often been resistant– children so seldom know what is good for them – I have taught him to appreciate all the groundbreaking musicmakers of our time” (Eggers 49). While this self-assertion and arrogance of cultural superiority may seem distasteful, Carusi claims that “people tend to identify with their cultural background during life crises more than at any other time” (19). According to her, “culture molds what and how we feel as well as how we communicate what and how we feel […] socially constructed notions of appropriate emotions determine our expression of those emotions” (21). This can explain Eggers’ intent to drown Toph – and himself – with music, jokes, and banter rather than with complete grieving and despair. Eggers’ reaction to his parents’ deaths is entirely appropriate given the situation he is put into as the guardian of his brother. He attempts to provide normalcy through the culture he knows, abandoning his needs and becoming what Carusi calls a “disenfranchised griever” (7).
It is because of Eggers’ role as a “disenfranchised griever” that some of his reactions may seem actually inappropriate to the reader, and why Eggers may feel he needs to include his metanarrative to defend himself against this lash back. Eggers is put into a difficult position “because we construct the loss of a parent as a low-grief experience” (Carusi 7). Eggers is expected to move on appropriately, as an adult in the position of raising a child, yet he is still in his lower twenties, a child at heart, and a baby to the real world, and is expected also to mourn heavily. He has no choice but to select his own path, first burying his grief in the writing one sees in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius due to his lack of another grieving mechanism and chained to the façade he must put on for Toph, then finally memorializing his parents properly, through the completion of writing and final publishing of his book, as well as finally memorializing his mother with her ashes.
These roles work to help divide the memoir into the two halves that are constructed, creating a messy break of sometimes polarizing, sometimes harmonizing sides. Says Smith et. al., “Eggers is acutely aware that the contradictions of his multiple identities pose a dilemma for the tidy memoirist.” It is not Eggers’ goal to create the perfectly organized memoir; according to Miller, Eggers even refrained from editing the book in many places. Still, the way Eggers does organize the memoir is telling of his purposes and the effects they have on his, and the reader’s, psyche. Eggers is self-conscious yet brave, risk-taking yet weary, a controlling maniac, yet a disorganized mess; these opposing sides should not be surprising to the reader, particularly as one is viewing the grieving process of the author writing the book.
Eggers’ quirky, eccentric take on his subject matter is what gives him popularity, celebrity, and attention, which he seems to desire, rather than subjection to the realm of “Anonymous Memoirist Number 4001.” Not only does this form give him interest, however; it also accomplishes his goal of memorializing his parents and the events of his life properly through realistic events. His parents are not put on pedestals, as this would be an inauthentic tribute to their memories. Instead, they are held up at arms’ length and examined carefully, being preserved through every rumpled collar and missed belt loop, as well as every perfect detail; in fact, Eggers examines himself and his construction of this narrative in the same way, commenting carefully on his own place in the narrative, even when holding himself high, in a “deserving” fanfare; this only points to his truthful, arrogant flaws. Eggers asserts,
[the author] plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality. Further, he is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story, which is both too black and blinding to look at – avert…your…eyes!—but nevertheless useful, at least to the author, even in caricatured or condensed form, because telling as many people as possible about it helps, he thinks, to dilute the pain and bitterness and thus facilitate its flushing from his soul […] (Eggers Acknowledgements).
Proving his cunning and cleverness, Eggers beats the reader to any interpretation they may desire to take. He admits to his ultimate goals in writing and the ultimate themes of loss and sadness, and yet also proves the usefulness of the lighter “gimmickry” as a defense, both for Eggers and the reader. Yet this is where Eggers and myself differ. The term “gimmickry” does not seem to fit the device used at all. It is an appropriate, well-used narrative structure that protects, yes, but also helps get to the truth of the narrative. There is more truth to shadows than only the dark, for shadows are cast from light. Eggers finds pieces of light and strings them together, just enough to cast shadows upon the events needed. In order to comprehend the shadows and the darkness, the reader must also experience the light; only then can an understanding be made of what is missing, what eventually can be again, and what still is in the smallest of ways. While the tale Eggers spins is not one of gothic horror or miserable sadness externally, the shadows it casts are far more real than any other way an author might attempt to render darkness. Eggers’ writing style, and other nontraditional forms, are the only way to convey a tragic event in a way that does not fetishize it or make it to be a false replica; these writing styles preserve the truth entirely, proving contrast between lightness and darkness is the key.
Baer, Andrea Patricia. “The Moods of Postmodern Metafiction: Narrative and Affective Literary Spaces and Reader (Dis)Engagement.” Order No. 3318155 University of Washington, 2008. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
Carusi, Dawn L. “Narratives of Orphaned Adults: Journey to Restoration.” Order No. 3226709 Ohio University, 2006. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print.
Miller, Elise. “Dave Eggers’s a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Memoir as a “Pain-Relief Device”.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 59.5 (2011): 983-1008. ProQuest. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Polvinen, Merja. “Affect and Artifice in Cognitive Literary Theory.” Journal of Literary Semantics 42.2 (2013): 165-80. Print.
Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. “The Rumpled Bed of Autobiography: Extravagant Lives, Extravagant Questions.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quearterly 24.1 (2001): 1-14. Print.