‘Staggering Genius’ Eggers breaks hearts

The English department presented Dave Eggers, author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” to the AMT Mainstage on Feb. 13. A sold-out house attended an event that had been advertised as a reading, but felt more like stand-up comedy.

After an introduction from Cassandra Cleghorn, senior lecturer in English and American studies, which compared Eggers to the great American writers of yore, the author stumbled out from behind the curtain and slipped behind the podium. With a turn toward the retreating Cleghorn, he sheepishly asked, “Emerson, huh? Interesting.” It was only seconds into his reading and already the audience was laughing with him, and he reveled in it.

He began by talking about his magazine, Timothy McSweeny’s Quarterly Concern, warning us that a contest was taking place allowing writers to submit short stories for publication. He allowed that they could be about anything, but he preferred those about balloons, caves, balloons stuck in caves, animals that only speak Spanish, or something in a similar vein.

He recounted that one of Eggers’ fellow writers at McSweeny’s had fallen in love with a fictional staff writer named “Lucy Thomas,” actually a nom-de-plume of Eggers’. He read one of Ms. Thomas’ stories about a slow day in the ice cream store in which two nubile sweet-purveyors, Dawn and Shauna, engage in some “Hustler-style” sex with each other. As Eggers described the lurid affair, he paused to interject, “I’m borrowing here from Emerson.” At that point Cleghorn interjected, “that’s actually Whitman”; Eggers is notorious for planting confederates in his audiences.

Eggers then read a selection from a chapter of “A Heartbreaking Work” in which he and his younger brother, Christopher, see Bill Clinton leaving a restaurant in San Francisco. The audience laughed as he detailed the vast pinkness of the former president’s face and were glad to learn that Clinton’s chubby fingers made contact with those of his beloved brother Toph. When Egger’s pint-size water bottle was empty, he took the pitcher and refilled it at the podium, an unassuming moment that reminded us of the human qualities that his novel sometimes possesses in between the moments of arrogance.

After the laughter and applause subsided, Eggers said he would treat the audience to a sneak preview of his upcoming book. He had a carousel slide projector and soon we were treated to some fuzzy reproductions of the pages to his new book. He was like an eager neighbor, clicking through the slides as if they were images from his most recent family vacation. One, we were told, lacked dialogue, as seen in the lack of quotation marks; another had too much, as made clear by a gaping blank space. In typical fashion, he went on a little too long, drawing out every last laugh, but the audience still loved it.

“It wasn’t all stuffy; he was just talking to the people. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, especially the women, who were all giggling. I think he has a way of capturing the room – everyone was hanging onto every word,” Eric Gladstone ’04 said of the reading.

Eggers finished his slide show and then it was time for questions. He sat on the edge of the stage like a king holding court, answering questions like a jester. Some of the audience thought it was time to dethrone this self-proclaimed genius and asked some pretty wise-assed questions. Not to be outdone, Eggers offered some wise-assed answers. Pete L’Official ’02 remarked, “People tend to ask pretty stupid questions and he called them out.”

Unfortunately for those who were interested in learning more about the author, Eggers dismissed even the serious inquiries. When asked about Toph, he replied that his brother had been tagged by the forest service in northern California. Jamie Gardner ’03 later remarked, “It’s pretty hard to ask interesting questions about stand-up comedy.”

The final – and arguably the most entertaining – reading was from “Champagne Snowball,” the story of one young man’s trip to a junior high dance in the early eighties. With a stereo blaring hits from Toto and Journey behind him, Eggers vividly described the scene at the recreation center. When the DJ said “snowball” the entire room would tongue-kiss in way that Eggers described as “two squids trying to suck each other’s brains out.” Once again, the audience lapped it up.

Eventually he had to let us go, and Eggers stepped back behind the curtain. Luckily, instead of retreating back to the Williams Inn, Eggers took a very short break and returned to sit at the table in the middle of the stage, wearing a baseball cap, and engaging the awaiting audience.

The response was amazing: after the show, students were lined up in excess of an hour to get their books signed and linger for a minute with the author. The prize was worth the wait; Eggers made a connection with everyone in the audience, drawing them with humor and keeping them with unguarded sincerity.