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A Rambling Work of Staggeringly Little Import
on 18 February 2010
As the first work of `hipster icon', `McSweeney's' founder, and all-round swell guy; Dave Eggers, it was with no small amount of anticipation that I picked up `A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'.
Having put it down a short time afterward, I felt completely confused as to how it had garnered such critical acclaim, both in the US, and this country.
The book is ostensibly a memoir of the tragic loss of Dave Egger's parents, accompanied by a series of anecdotes, the telling of which is facilitated by a couple of flimsy literary devices.
The first part of the book is certainly well-written and worth reading. The theme of being thrown into a situation where you are suddenly, simultaneously an elder sibling and a single-parent, with all the difficulties, and possible rewards that might bring, is seemingly rich ground for exploration. However this is only done in the most perfunctory of ways, before the author abandons the theme early on in the book.
The complexities of the sibling/parent paradox aside, family bereavement (no matter how shocking and sudden the circumstances) is possibly not the most compelling of themes for a 400+ page book, and Eggers quickly seems to realise this around page 103, where he runs out things to say on the subject. He doesn't let this deter him though. Indeed Eggers seems to excel at writing an awful lot while saying almost nothing.
Having dealt with the most (if not only) substantial concept in the book, the narrative quickly descends into a series of tame, self-indulgent, rambling anecdotes about: getting roughed up a little bit on a beach by some Mexicans, being wonderfully young, hip, and fresh and starting a magazine, and setting fire to a tennis ball and kicking it around.
While reading the content-lite prose, there is very much a feeling that this just what happened to be going through Eggers' mind at the time of writing. But where Kerouac, and others have created an exuberant, reckless, stream-of-consciousness, Eggers' logorrhoeic, self-satisfied, monologues only serves to create the feeling that the reader is being talked into a coma by somebody who is rather too enamoured with themselves.
Indeed, the self-absorption of the majority of the book is mildly offensive, as is Eggers' priggishness and sanctimony which reveals itself throughout: `I always thought people with any kind of addiction were morally inferior, lesser beings', 'I always felt I had to be purer than everyone else', 'I would stop other kids in the playground swearing'.
In some sense dealing with something so tragic, so candidly should be commended, but it certainly doesn't leave an author beyond reproach for bad penmanship. Aside from the first 103 pages, this is a nauseatingly self-absorbed waffle about nothing very much, which no amount of witty, self-conscious asides, pictures of staplers, or `playful gamesmanship' redeems. Dave Eggers' prominence in the current literary scene seems, much like Seth Rogen's ubiquity in `comedy' films, symptomatic of a paucity of quality rather than a reflection of talent.
Either that or the emperor really is wearing a fantastic set of new clothes and it's me who need to get my eyes checked.