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.
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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 […]