There aren't too many criticisms you could make of the book
that Eggers himself doesn't make--and make, for that matter,
within the book itself. The book begins with "This was uncalled
for" before you even reach the title page. In number four
of the "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book"
that follow the title page, Eggers suggests "many of you
might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 239-351,
which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and
those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when
they seemed interesting to those living them at the time."
In the Acknowledgements, which go on for page after page after
page, Eggers writes:
While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential,
he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality....
He also plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness
about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality. Further,
he is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing
about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this,
and will preempt your claim of the book's irrelevance due to
And so on.
The whole book is like this, operating in a constant state
of self-referential undercutting of itself. The newly-released
paperback edition has even more than the original hardback.
If you find this sort of knowingness and post-something-or-other-ist
clowning around irritating, you definitely shouldn't read this
book. If you find memoirs irritating, you shouldn't read this
book. There is no point in deliberately choosing to read books
you know you will find irritating when there are more than enough
things to irritate you in an ordinary day (like telephone solicitors
and the instructions "Press in and tear back" on a
box of macaroni and cheese which, as anyone who has ever tried
to follow these instructions knows perfectly well, never work)
without going out of your way to be irritated.
On the other hand, at moments--such as the opening chapters
describing Eggers's mother's dying weeks, which manage to capture
the brutal and mundane ordinariness of a lingering death--the
book is painfully, unsettlingly specific in its language.
I step down into the garage and she spits. It is audible,
the gurgling sound. She does not have the towel or the half-moon
receptacle. The green fluid comes over her chin and lands on
her nightgown. A second wave comes but she holds her mouth closed,
her cheeks puffed out. There is green fluid on her face.
Perhaps you recall all those times in English, and later,
literature, classes where the instructor / teacher / professor
would stand at the front of the classroom or wander casually
through the rows of desks, or maybe you were all sitting cozily
gathered around a conference table or even on squishy sofas in
an intimate upper-level "seminar"--at any rate, there
you were and you were "analyzing" the current reading
assignment. What does Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen,
Donne, Frost, Auden, Shaw, Updike, Sexton, Eliot, Pynchon, Hawthorne
(you can see I came of literary age before the Western Canon
went out of fashion) mean when he / she writes....?
I have two post-secondary degrees in English and I have even
taught literature, and yet I have never been able to shake the
feeling that there is one right answer, probably printed in red
in the back of the coveted Teacher's Edition, to questions like
"What does the author mean?" and "What is the
author trying to say?" and "Why is it important to
the story that the protagonist has only one leg?" Only,
I never felt particularly certain I knew the answer; every English
paper I ever wrote felt like throwing a dart in the dark, and
every time I fully expected a failing grade.
Thus I have always been mystified by book reviews that assert
confidently, "Clearly, Rise and Shine: The Complete Bread
Machine Cookbook is a meditation on mortality and the evanescence
of perfection." How is it that the reviewer knows this with
So I am going to go ahead and admit right here that I can't
tell you what Dave Eggers is trying to say with AHWOSG.
Eggers himself helpfully provides an "Incomplete Guide to
Symbols and Metaphors," and he also claims a lot of other
things about the book, but how far you want to trust any of it
is up to you. I could tell you what kinds of things I thought
Dave Eggers was trying to say, and I'm sure I could support
my conclusions by citing appropriate passages from the book;
after all, in the end I almost always got an "A" on
those papers I was certain I'd failed. But I remember reading
a review once of AHWOSG that claimed that the last page
of the narrative was a knowing pastiche of Molly Bloom's soliloquy
at the end of Joyce's Ulysses. Is it? Sez who?
Since entire scholarly careers have been made (and broken)
on the question of the subjectivity versus objectivity of meaning,
I'm going to leave that topic to those who actually use the word
"semiotics" in casual conversation. I'm just going
to point out that it would be monumental arrogance on my part
to tell you whether or not you should read A Heartbreaking
Work of Staggering Genius.
Given, the two post-secondary degrees in English, but what
really qualifies me to be the arbiter of your literary taste?
How should I know whether or not you will like this book? You
may love it. You may think it is the best book ever written.
You may loathe it and consider it your personal mission to defame
Dave Eggers whenever the opportunity arises. You may be indifferent--like
my friend who says, "It was okay, but I got bored and couldn't
For what it's worth, however, I mostly liked it, even in spite
of that reflexive urge to dislike something that everyone else
likes just to prove that, unlike everyone else, you are not a
swinish slave to popular taste. I mostly liked it, though now
of course I have to say what I didn't like in order to prove
that I am not a swinish slave to popular taste, or trying to
curry favor with Dave Eggers.
So okay. The word "fuck," along with its various
derivatives and near-relatives, was used more than I thought
strictly necessary; like the red chili sauce on the table at
the Vietnamese restaurant, a little "fuck" goes a long
way, though both are a matter of taste. I didn't get the lengthy
hand-wringing over driving around with his mother's ashes in
a box in his car--what's the big deal there? Sometimes the meta-riffs,
like the fictionalized transcript of Eggers's interview audition
for the cast of MTV's Real World, go on too long, leaving
all but the most dedicated readers with an irresistible urge
to skip (which Eggers does invite you to do).
In an article in the Chicago Tribune, one Sean Wilsey,
interviewed, says that the book is "300-odd pages of what
it's like to talk to Dave." Eggers's friend Marny says,
"What he thinks is on the paper. His brain is kind of on
the page." You can imagine Eggers's friends at two in the
morning wearily begging "enough already," and there
are times in this book, dear reader, when you may feel much the
But there are all those other parts, parts I thought were
quite wonderful, and parts that were laugh-out-loud funny, and
parts that were clever in a truly clever and not an oh-isn't-he-being-clever
way, and they made you stop and think. AHWOSG plays fast-and-loose
with all kinds of literary conventions, right down to the copyright
page, that most of us never get around to thinking about, much
less thinking about subverting, and much of the time the book
does so in a sometimes interesting and yes, sometimes labored
effort to unlayer the real truth of Eggers' experiences. And
I can assure you, having written a memoir of my own (never pass
up an opportunity to flog your own book) that it is stupefyingly
hard--much harder than you can imagine until you try it yourself--to
write a true story.
Editor's Note: Caroline Kettlewell
is the author of Skin Game: A Memoir.
Click here to
read WAG's review of Skin
Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.