MR. WRITER, WHY DON'T YOU TELL IT LIKE IT IS?
Earlier this year, I read Dave Eggers' novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and wrote about it positively on this blog. I particularly liked the heady rush the ending gave the reader, finishing on an up note that defied explanation.
But something bugged me about it, and has been rattling around in my brain since, gathering ire like a snowball growing in size as it travels downhill. At first I assumed it was just how ubiquitous Mr. Eggers is, and how at every turn, I see him pulling his "Everybody's clever nowadays" routine. It's an accurate target, as each successive Eggers endeavor pokes at me, getting that raccoon-in-a-bag personality of mine all abuzz. (In this paragraph alone, if we add up the metaphors, I am a creature of the night with ice in my skull. Who is clever now?) But I was always able to say, "Yeah, he is a bit much, but the novel is still good," kind of the way I had always been able to ignore Quentin Tarantino "The Entertainer" and just stick to his movies.
The explanation that this aspect was the only target never satisfied me, though, and it's only now started to sink in that it's because the precocious behavior of the author is actually a problem of the work, as well. His persona is too much at play in the novel, even beyond the abysmal introductory material. It's in the narrative itself, where he attempts to stave off potential criticisms by discounting the experiences he is writing about. It's in all the bits where he proclaims himself and his twentysomething friends as having very twentysomething problems, which are inherently less important than the problems of the rest of the world (teenagers and senior citizens, then? Balding businessmen in hot rods?). To my reading eye, it's the author trying to make his book critic proof by tossing an ironic wink in their direction. "I know we are shallow, so you can't tell me we're shallow, because it's that very shallowness I celebrate and denigrate." It's the same irony that leads to the title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which with either tickle you or annoy you, depending on your disposition. (If your T-shirt advertises an high school with a funny name you did not attend, you just might be one of the ironically tickled. Don't you think it's about time for a new wardrobe, Mr. 1997?)
Now, we all hedge our bets. Every creative person at some point can't help but consider how his work will be received. For me, I write about outsiders, but usually outsiders within subcultures of outsiders. I rarely think in those terms, naturally, but I do at times have to gauge how the stories may be viewed by the subcultures I am writing about and have to make sure my parameters are clear. You can take exception to the main character of The Everlasting as a mod, for instance, if I am not clear enough that he isn't a very good one and wouldn't want to be part of your group any more than you would want him to be.
But there is something different the way Eggers does it in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Dare I call it disingenuous? Or is it worse than that? He sets his parameters, sets up the shallow nature of the people he is writing about, but never debunks it. He stays behind the hedge, and thus says that the critics are right, that the experience of people of our generation is shallow and is less important, just by the nature of when and how we existed. And I think I resent that.
Experience is experience. There is a great passage in Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction (Ellis being a master at digging into the shallow for the deeper meaning), where a frat boy at an R.E.M. concert is looking at a rich daddy's girl, and at first he is being very judgmental, imagining she has never known real pain. And then he realizes that if the worst thing you've ever felt is, say, a pinprick on your finger, to your experience, it hurt just as much as a gunshot in the stomach. It's all perspective. There is no grand scale for individual suffering that says you are less because you don't notch as high.
And so doesn't it go for any generation of people? Should we allow our artists to discount how we are because of their own fears of measuring up to the grand tradition of capital-A Art? I know that is partially what Eggers is talking about, trying to sort out his greater meaning in things, and maybe in that final Frisbee game, he does come to grips with the simplicity of a personal life--but I'm starting to feel like that's something tacked on as opposed to what the text really gives me.
(Really, to answer this fully and probably more honestly would require a second reading, not just my creative memory, which could be lying to me. If I wanted to hedge my bets, I'd note that this is just a place for me to get my thoughts out and you don't pay to read it, so don't expect much. But I demand you expect plenty! Until I tell you to fuck off, at least.)
(Yes, everybody's clever nowadays--and by everybody, I mean me. Do you love me like you used to?)
Current Soundtrack: Fatboy Slim, Palookaville; Morrissey live at Reading 2004
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All material (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich