lit crit: Eggers’ ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’

It’s hard to explain why reading Dave Eggers’ account of losing both of his parents to cancer in the span of six weeks, and his subsequent, precocious baptism by fire into single parenthood, should buoy me up – but it does. It’s not the grim pleasure of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I. Nor is it Schadenfreude, the thrill you get from witnessing someone else’s pain. It might be Eggers’ readiness to wallow – to give over to what David Foster Wallace calls his “arias of grief” – coupled with his forceful resolve that wallowing is simply not allowed. Few writers can pull off the mix of cheerfulness and invective that Eggers achieves in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

My favorite example of the whiplash act comes at the end of the Real World chapter. Eggers moves into high gear: “Oh, I want to be the heart pumping blood to everyone, blood is what I know, I feel so warm in blood, can swim in blood, oh let me be the strong-beating heart that brings blood to everyone! I want-” The interviewer cuts in: “And that will heal you?” “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Eggers raves.

The next chapter drops us cold: “F***” it. Stupid show.” But this on-off-on-again tendency feels like a characterological trait, and that’s not exactly what draws me to the book.

When I taught it last spring, I found myself in the surprising position of telling a bunch of my students to lighten up – they were much harder on his asides, what some of them called his self-indulgent tangents, than I was. Many of them were suspicious of his shiftiness, impatient with his excesses. What Eggers knows is that all writing, even the most immediately “relevant,” “topical,” “useful” writing is an act of indulging the self.

This is what his writing conveys: that the self is endlessly, inexhaustibly in need of indulgence.

Finally, it is Eggers’ faith in even the outside possibility of a visceral compact between writer and reader that compels me to reread the book, to make use of it. This is also what puts him in conversation with the great American writers of the grim yet giddy strain, the I-like-it-because-it-is-bitter-and-because-it-is-my-heart strain. Eggers writes to figure out how the losses add up, what one’s grief accomplishes, what those glancing moments of connection can mean. His writing brings together the austerity of Emerson (“I grieve that grief can teach me nothing”) and the euphoria of Whitman, who promised that his poetry would be “filter and fibre for [our] blood.”

Here is Eggers, on the relation between reader and writer, and between the writer and his material: “You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup. I can afford to give you this. This does not break me. I give you virtually everything I have. Besides, these things aren’t even mine. My father is not mine – not in that way. His death and what he’s done is not mine. I was born into a town and a family and the town and my family happened to me. I own none of it. It is everyone’s. It is shareware. I like it, I like having been a part of it, I would kill or die to protect those who are part of it, but do I not claim exclusivity. Have it. Take it from me. Do with it what you will. Make it useful. This is like making electricity from dirt.”

In light of his visit, I have a few more things to say about Eggers and his place in American literature. At the end of the Q and A session, a voice from the middle of the hall called out:  “What do you think about your book being taught in an American literature class, next to Huck Finn and the like?” It’s my guess that this person was expecting Eggers to say, “What a crock! My book has no business in such company! I write about boners, for God sake!”

In fact, Eggers did laugh the question off: “Hey, what can I say, they say there’s been a lowering of standards,” and stood up from the edge of the stage to resume his reading.

However, the conversation I had with Eggers backstage before the reading revealed something more than diffidence. He asked me what I was going to say in my intro, and I said, “Oh, just some grand claims about your place in American Letters,” to which he replied, “Oh no, I’ll just go and disprove it all with my reading.”

Eggers’ writing is extremely literary, by which I mean it is the writing of a person who has read widely and deeply. He does not drop the names of authors or works; in fact he goes to great lengths to keep overt evidence of his reading out of his work. Literary influence is a mysterious and subtle process.

Earlier I gave the impression that writing works like a recipe: take a pinch of Emerson, a handful of Whitman, a bunch of your self, coat in irony and bake for 20 minutes. This is not how it works. The relation between one’s reading and one’s writing is almost perfectly unknowable: it involves loving repetition, profound and unconscious absorption, imitation, rejection, emulation, evasion and – above all – disavowal.

As Wallace Stevens, the great modern American poet, wrote to a friend on this subject, “I am not conscious of having been influenced by anybody. As for W. Blake, I think that this means Wilhelm Blake.”

This is how a writer must talk in order to get through the day. But a reader knows when she is in the presence of writing that is latticed (Eggers’ favorite word) to other writing. It is felt at the level of syntax, even more than in echoes of words, images, ideas.

“It is almost too good to be believed,” Eggers writes, “that we can make beauty from this stuff.” On the same subject, his colleague Walt Whitman once wrote, “Now I am terrified at the Earth. It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.”

Dave Eggers proudly carries high literary ambitions – in the best sense of the word. I am happy as a reader to keep him company.

[Prof. Cleghorn is a senior lecturer in the English Department.]