'Staggering Genius' -- a 29-year-old show-off

February 13, 2000|By Clare McHugh | By Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," by Dave Eggers. Simon & Schuster. 375 pages. $23.

It takes some nerve to call your memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," especially if you're only 29, as author Eggers is. But read 10 paragraphs and you'll be aware it's a joke, he means it ironically. It's a whole Gen-X thing, being ironic about the media, even if you're the one creating the piece of media, in this case a wordy, overgrown, ceaselessly self-conscious account of Eggers' life from senior year in college until age 26.

This young author is so, you know, not part of the old system, that he even reveals in the preface how much he was paid for A.H.W.O.S.G. (as he refers to it). He was paid a $100,000 advance against royalties. Also in the preface, he describes at length his unease about writing a memoir and anticipates all the different ways that you the reader might react. He wants you to know that you can't feel or think anything about him that he hasn't already felt or thought. It turns out that although he's not a genius (ha-ha! how ridiculous! how old media!) he does think he's pretty special, and he wants you to think so, too.

The truth is, Eggers is a good writer, with a sad, hilarious, poignant story to tell that he messes up by not telling it straight. In the winter of 1991, Eggers' parents die within five weeks of each other, both of cancer. They leave behind a home in Lake Forest, Ill., and four children -- the youngest a boy of 8, Christopher, nicknamed Toph. Author Eggers, age 21, decides to raise Toph, and moves with him to California to be near their older siblings. The two boys set up housekeeping in Berkeley, where they often act irresponsibly, make Toph late for school, keep house chaotically, eat without regard for the five basic food groups, and generally carry on as you'd expect two young males to do in this situation. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wait for the inevitable moment when Eggers tries to pick up foxy older women at parents night (it comes) and you'll have a good time. If you're really into Eggers, you'll also enjoy his accounts of how he and his friends started a humor magazine called Might, and how he tries to milk his family tragedy to get on "The Real World," a show produced by MTV.

But only very indulgent readers will accept the length at which Eggers relates all this, and applaud his constant efforts to demonstrate (in marginalia, footnotes and asides) that he's different from other authors because while he knows he's trying to get our laughs and our tears, he's ambivalent about it.

Eggers should grow up and accept it's a given that writers are show-offs. Unless there is something wrong with them, they write so people will read them. They try to seduce with prose, convince with passion, make everyone giggle at their jokes. This is not news. Cop to being a show off, Eggers -- there are worse things -- and concentrate on telling stories that illuminate the world and the way people think, act and feel.

Clare McHugh was the founding editor of the men's magazine Maxim. A former reporter for the New York Post and the New York Observer, she has worked as a magazine editor since 1992 and is currently a development editor with Time Inc.

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