What with the dissertation hanging over my head, I don’t get a lot of time to read for pleasure. However, I did buy a few books last January, spurred on by several “Best Books of the Decade” lists. It took me over half the year to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which I loved).
It’s taken me slightly less long to complete Dave Eggers’s masterful, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The book chronicles Eggers’s early twenties, during which both his parents died and he was left to raise his adolescent brother (along with his older sister, who eventually committed suicide, and brother, who only helped out on occasion).
Eggers’s book was a smashing success, and I imagine that many of my readers are aware of it and have even read it. So I won’t waste your time recounting the plotline. Instead, I’ll muse in an existential way (which, I think, is in keeping with Eggers’s own posture in the book).
As I read AHWOSG, I couldn’t help but thinking over and over again, This guy is writing non-fiction. That’s what I do, too. But I think he’s better at it than me. Way, way better.
Of course, like anyone, I have moments whenever I am engaged with the work of someone who does the same thing as me when I wonder, Who’s better at this, me or him/her? But with this book, it was different. Because instead of asking myself, Could I ever write this well?, I had to ask myself, Could I ever be this honest?
Eggers stream-of-consciousness narrative goes so deep into his psyche that the Wikipedia entry says the book is better classified as “creative non-fiction” than it is as memoir, a genre which itself allows a great deal of latitude to the writer. He has a dialogue with his younger brother, for instance, that leaves the realm of remembered conversation and goes deeply down the rabbit-hole of Eggers’s psyche. The tricky part — and the testament of Eggers’s brilliance as a writer — is that you cannot quite tell when the actual conversation ends and the fictionalized conversation begins.
I agree with the many reviewers who say that the end of the book, an adolescent screed by Eggers, doesn’t really work. But that’s a trifle in the context of the book as a whole which successful bends the autobiography/memoir category beyond its postmodern breaking point, and yet doesn’t break it. Only a brilliant writer could do such a thing.
Maybe if I keep telling myself I’m like Eggers long enough, I eventually will be. Hey, a guy can always hope!