Some 150 pages in, however, everything changes. Eggers’ magazine, Might,appears as if out of nowhere. One moment he’s talking big with a friend; the next, “the magazine that will change this world and all future worlds has become reality.” His contempt for this episode in his life, evident in that overblown description and all that follows, feels perfunctory, as if enthusiasm always deserves ridicule. Eggers swaggers through the futility of producing a magazine in the same way that he suffers through the shame of auditioning for MTV’s The Real World,the television analog of the book he set out to construct: sneering all the way, but acutely aware that his sneering is a posture.
The part-fiction transcript of Eggers’ interview with Real Worldproducer Laura Folger has the makings of a masterful piece of cultural meta-commentary in which the author gets a chance to explain himself — his economic background, his disrespect for privacy (“Cheap, overabundant, easily gotten, lost, regained, bought, sold”) and dismissal of dignity (“Dignity is an affectation, cute but eccentric, like learning French or collecting scarves”). But there’s too much of it. In fact, there’s too much of a lot in this book, and the fourth time he returns to his paranoia about the babysitter for laughs, it becomes clear that Eggers needed an editor — someone intimidated by neither his youth nor his apparent grooviness, someone who could have helped him hone A.H.W.O.S.G.into a testament to voyeurism and self-centeredness, a treatise on the Age of the Jennicam. Instead, Eggers reveals himself as a tremendously gifted writer who hasn’t quite read enough, or lived enough, to act so wise.
Eggers himself says — again, in those catchall acknowledgments — that his book is uneven after the first 200 pages. He’s right. So why didn’t he fix it? Does he consider indulgence cool? Cute? By writing about himself being written about, he wants to declare all criticism moot, to make it ridiculous to find fault, to make it impossible to write about him. “He is fully cognizant, way ahead of you” he writes of himself, “in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all of this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device . . .” This preempting extends to matters beyond his approach to storytelling: Eggers implies that because he is aware of his racism, his racism is acceptable, that because he understands cynicism to be a phony posture, his cynicism is forgivable. He invents a scene in which his suicidal friend John accuses him of using other people’s agony as anecdotal fodder, which doesn’t make it any less irritating that no one in this book emerges as anything more than a foil for the narrator — not even, amazingly, Toph. Eggers’ little brother, who seemed so real and dear early on, survives in the end as just another commentator on Eggers’ art. “Don’t you see this as a kind of cannibalism?” he has Toph inquire of Might’s use of celebrities. It’s supposed to be funny — “You’re breaking out of character again,” Eggers warns him — but it plays as just another reminder that Eggers’ imploded world has ceased to be interesting.
Perhaps even to him. Examining one’s life just enough to sell it, but not enough to understand it, must get tedious after a while, when one’s existence finally becomes a series of anecdotes mediated by narrative, an exercise in standing outside oneself, observing oneself experiencing life. Toward the end of A.H.W.O.S.G.,Eggers has only begun to be aware of his condition. As he drinks beer with old friends on a visit to Chicago, he thinks to himself, “I am kicking back.” You wish that for his sake he could.
A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS: Based on a True Story | By DAVE EGGERS Simon & Schuster | 375 pages | $23 hardcover