Staggering genius, really

Tracking the elusive and generous Dave Eggers

Quite a bit of not-so-heartbreaking work of staggering genius has been penned about Dave Eggers recently, but there certainly has also been a whole lot of mediocre, speculative crap written about him, with all the vigor, venom and earnestness of a Modern Literary Association cocktail tête-à-tête, minus the high-falutin’ vernacular.

For the few of you out there who haven’t heard of him yet, he is the outrageously successful author of a best-selling autobiographical memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The book is a winsome and stylish yet real-life, gut-tugging tale of his parents dying of cancer within 32 days of each other and him and his sister Beth and 8-year-old brother Toph transplanting themselves from Illinois to Berkeley, where he and Beth tried to rear an 8-year-old while still growing up themselves.

His “overnight” success, his plush million-dollar movie deal, and the way he was already a Bay Area celeb as the publisher of an intermittently funny but always bold Spy-like mag called Might make him the target of a lot of ambivalent, silly scrutiny and speculation, especially in the local media. (Eggers recently was slammed by an SF Weekly journo for publishing a piece about a “teacher-of-the-month” grant he had established through 826 Valencia, a free creative-writing workshop he has funded for underprivileged kids. The writer accused the piece of being self-promotion in disguise.)

Now, I am about to run the risk of adding to that slush pile.

There were two things I wanted to accomplish with this article: (1) to review his new, self-published book, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and (2) to get to know, as best I could, the real Dave Eggers, not the snarky, charismatic editor and not the recent celebrity writer du jour on such rampant display on the left and right coasts, but some hybrid of the two. I think the secret of the phenomenon of Eggers—and he is a phenomenon, like a movie star, emanating some radioactive allure—lies at the intersection of the book writer and the person.

He is a writer with considerable talent, yes. But there is something else going on here, too. More than any other youngish, very successful writer in our country—and I do include Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Rick Moody and their ilk—Eggers has become the literary equivalent of a rock star, complete with all the urban legends and massive mythologies about him and his life. (Like the latest—did his sister Beth recently kill herself, or not? It’s been written about only on page 6 of the New York Post, and no one seems to be able to confirm it.) Eggers has become a full-blown brand name. Sightings of him send ripples through a room. The mention of his name never fails to prompt passionate opinions of adoration or hatred.

I think Eggers’ contribution to the publishing world goes way beyond his writing. I think he’s changed the way we think about reading, writing and how books should get published. And all of that, I think, has more to do with Eggers the man than Eggers the writer. So, I wanted to get to know the man.

The problem is that getting near Eggers is damned near impossible at the moment. Being a former journo of a sort himself, and having run the gamut of criticism from hagiography to unalloyed, ambushing hatred, he is reasonably wary of the press. Much like in the old days of Might, a cheerful but firm phalanx of disciples and defenders will not crack open an inch to let anyone near him for an interview. These are largely the people who run his self-published literary magazine, McSweeney’s, which now has its own literary imprint, and 826 Valencia, his free creative-writing tutorial workshops for kids, in the Mission in San Francisco.

One of the reasons that parsing Eggers is so attractive is that in his first book he seems to invite us into his living room, to make ourselves comfortable on his second-hand couch and grab ourselves a Bud while he tells us some of the tragicomic elements of his life. His book is wildly intimate and insinuating. It makes us feel like we have the right to know more, and we want to.

Eggers chose the McSweeney’s book-publishing wing to put out his new book, You Shall Know Our Velocity. There was a lot of hype about the book even before it came out. First of all, it was “self-published,” even though, after the epic success of his first novel, he could have gotten a deal just about anywhere. Second, it was distributed only through the McSweeney’s Web site and independent bookstores. The whole process was commandeered by Eggers alone, who has said in interviews that he abhors corporate publishing and would like to cut out the middleman entirely.

His choices and inventions—quitting a cushy job at Esquire, publishing his own alterna-literary mag and books, and funding a tutorial program for inner-city kids—all bear this out. He is generous to the point of saintliness with his time and money, it seems. But the ballsiness that has given him the drive and momentum to do this, to sidestep the status quo or quash it altogether largely on behalf of other people, has not served him well in his new book.

Eggers was simultaneously praised and criticized for his first book, for its rambling, stream-of-consciousness, On the Road voice that vacillated between arrogance and an aw-shucks shuffle. Such a stylistic choice (and it is very popular now among our most voguish writers, such as Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen) seems a matter of taste and judgment; can the book, the story, the narrative and the audience support such a choice? In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I think they mostly did.

It’s not a coincidence that Eggers describes at one point auditioning for a part in the cast of San Francisco’s The Real World on MTV and failing. He recognizes that, had he gotten it, it would have turned out disastrously, for him and his brother, Toph. But I think the impulse to live his life under microscopic scrutiny, a life turned inside out, is obvious in the very way he writes.

He got away with it in his memoir because the story was good—and true, to boot. We got to spy on Beth, Dave and Toph, like watching the very finest, smartest, most chosen episode of The Real World back when it was raw and real.

But the flouting of literary convention in his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, doesn’t work well in this context.

The story is about Will, a 27-year-old who recently came into a chunk of money and persuades his best friend, Hand, to join him in a breakneck tour around the world, giving away the money—$32,000—to people they find deserving in exotic places like Senegal and Morocco. It is unclear whether Will is compelled to do this out of guilt about the money or grief about the death of their best friend after a freak collision with an 18-wheeler. There are meandering, maudlin inner dialogues that Will has about his friend’s death that disrupt the travel mission and generally confuse the reader.

It is a highly self-indulgent book, with lots of little gimmicks and digressions that have become de rigueur with the current Gen X group of writers. But, in the end, the characters are unconvincing, the story is disjointed, and even though Eggers, who can write, folds in hundreds of descriptive little gems throughout, what you can’t help but think over and over when you read the book is, “This guy needs an editor!” And that, of course, is exactly what he was trying to circumvent.

Here is where we have the paradox of Dave Eggers. I don’t know if Eggers has more, better novels in him. But I don’t think that is what Eggers’ primary gift to the world is or will be. He has an irrepressible sense of self-liberty, a kind of “go to hell, I’m entitled to do things however I see fit” attitude, that may come from his and his siblings’ being orphaned so dramatically; you kinda get to make up the rules as you go along when that happens. Or, it may just be the mysterious chemistry of Dave Eggers.

But his determination to pluck from obscurity talented new writers with McSweeney’s, his inspired mentoring of child writers at 826 Valencia, his grants to and monetary support of the public school system, his quirky but mostly dead-on instincts as a publisher and his goddamned compulsive generosity and optimism are for real. He spreads these good things out in the world almost manically. He has cheerfully and single-handedly changed the way our society thinks about writing, publishing, education, child-rearing or doing whatever the hell you want. And that, more than anything else he writes, or any other movie deal he signs, will be his true legacy.