At the age of 21, in his last year of college, Dave Eggers lost both his parents to cancer. Dad went suddenly, unexpectedly; Mom lingered a little more than a month longer, confined to the living-room sofa while her four children hovered, watching her spit bile into a half-moon-shaped bowl, validating hallucinations induced by malignancy and morphine. In their parents’ absence, Eggers and his two older siblings, Beth and Bill, were left to raise their 7-year-old brother Toph, a responsibility that fell primarily to Eggers. Given these unfair and tragic circumstances, he did what any self-respecting young writer would do: He took notes.
You can snigger at the title of his eventual book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — Eggers expects you to. Call him cloying and manipulative, chide him for dumping yet another memoir on the market — he’s ready for it. In his extremely funny “acknowledgments,” he even offers some advice to the memoir-resistant: “PRETEND IT’S FICTION.” In those first 20 pages, which acknowledge not just helpful people and institutions but the author’s own shortcomings and the “major themes” of his book, Eggers begins an inquiry into the value and purpose of first-person storytelling, which he pursues through another 350-odd pages. “While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality,” he confesses in a Mobius strip of narcissism. This isn’t the hyper-intellectualized meta-narrative of David Foster Wallace, nor does Eggers write with the resigned awareness of a Don DeLillo character; surprisingly, for an under-30 writer who launched an ultra-clever Bay Area magazine in the mid-’90s called Might(and who now issues the hyper-ironic quarterly McSweeney’s), Eggers is earnest. He knows that real life cannot be captured without humor — not even a death watch — but his sense of humor is decidedly Midwestern: homespun, self-effacing and a little knuckleheaded. “We are waiting for everything to finally stop working,” he writes of his mother’s last moments, “the organs and systems, one by one, throwing up their hands — The jig is up,says the endocrine; I did what I could,says the stomach, or what’s left of it; We’ll get ’em next time,adds the heart, with a friendly punch to the shoulder.” His experimental style is more Lorrie Moore and The Onionthan Richard Brautigan.
And in that context, he is a writer of dizzying talent. Death takes some 41 pages, and it is a brilliant, beautiful, deliriously vivid account, tender at times but never, ever maudlin. He describes how his sister saw his father keel over in the driveway: “He was kneeling, but with his hands on the ground, fingers extended down, like roots from a riverbed tree. He was not praying.” His mother’s cancer looked to the doctors, he imagines, “like a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry with no zoning laws whatsoever.” The atmosphere around their house grows increasingly eerie as Mom fades away: Everyday activities — ordering pizza, Toph playing video games, watching The Love Connection— take on a ponderous finality; casual banter is loaded with significance. (“Does it hurt?” “What?” “The spitting.” “No, it feels good, stupid.”) Moments after her death, Eggers watches his little brother sleep: “[He] turns around and around, like the hand of a clock. His breathing is audible. His eyelashes are long. His hand hangs over the foldout bed.” This is prose so full it’s nearly tactile — you feel as though you can reach into the page and run your fingers through it.
Only when Eggers and his siblings head west does the self-consciousness he warned of get a toehold. Shell-shocked but reinforced by a profound sense of entitlement and the mixed blessing of utter freedom, they fully expect to be looked after by “an embarrassed and sorry world.” Accordingly, their activities have a pre-recorded quality, as if the whole point of engaging in them were to describe them to others later. “Oh, we are good,” he says of himself and Toph playing Frisbee on the beach. “We take four steps for each throw, and when we throw the world stops and gasps.” They are also, as Eggers is acutely aware, inhabiting a luxurious crawlspace between parent-child and peer status. “Our relationship, at least in terms of its terms and its rules, is wonderfully flexible,” he writes. “When something doesn’t get done, we both shrug, because technically, neither of us is responsible.”
For all its bluster, A.H.W.O.S.G.,as the author refers to it, remains at this point a sincere account of a life lived with one foot in experience, another in narrative. As badly as Eggers wants the world to be watching him, he worries that no one really is. “We expected our progress to be more closely followed,” he says, “to be checked up on” by his parents’ friends back home. He’s at his best when his sense of being watched is merely an elaborate fantasy: Racked with guilt over leaving Toph with a babysitter for the first time, Eggers riffs on the consequences of child neglect, which culminate in his cross-examination at a “show trial”: