How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dave Eggers

Or: Leggo my Egg-no, no guys, just kidding, no one should make that joke, ever

My wife’s book club just read Zeitoun and everyone liked it and afterward the question What Else Have You Read by Him? was raised and the assessment of Heartbreaking Work broke down like this:

  • All the People Who First Read it in Their 20s: “Great!”
  • All the People Who First Read it in Their 30s: “Terrible!”

I read this book when it came out in 2000; I was in my 20s and I lived in Brooklyn a few blocks from Eggers when McSweeney’s was getting under way and the book was just coming out. It seemed great! And now I have just read the book again.

Um. It was strange? To read it again? There are books that you need to read at certain ages for their impact to be formative, and I definitely read this one at the “correct” time. But I have no idea if the necessary context is “Being 20” or “Being in Brooklyn in 2000”. But as you know from my linked short story cycle, I Lived in Brooklyn for Ten Years and Literally Can’t Stop Talking About It, oh what’s that? You haven’t read it? No problem, I have it memorized.

Come with me, youngsters, to a time when alt rock was featuring a lot of cello for some reason…

To Sum Up

As Heartbreaking Work ends, Might is folding (I never read Might, so here; read what Lindsay Robertson said in 2005) and the brothers are moving. This is not mentioned in the book (if it had been, then Judd Winick would have been included in the “Incomplete Guides to Symbols and Metaphors”), but Eggers was doing a half-page cartoon called “Smarter Feller” for the SF Weekly that featured a handbag and the handbag’s non-sequiturs. In an interview that explains why there was a garage sale announcement in one of the strips, Eggers rationalizes the move to New York to work at Esquire: “Might always had a bigger presence in New York than here. Our sensibilities were harder and mean versus here, where it’s softer.”

Buuuuut that’s not what I remember. There are definitely hard things, but Park Slope is green space and wrought iron fences and Brownstones and stoops. It’s Sesame Street (it’s cleaner, actually). The cool kids that were living there were not Dov Charney hipsters; they were proto-hipsters who would have been surprised to find “hipster” used pejoratively, like Chris Eigeman in Last Days of Disco saying he wished he was a yuppie: “Young; upwardly mobile; professional. Those are good things, not bad things.”

Maybe the harder, meaner thing in New York was the Esquire job, which did not last. By Fall of 1998 Eggers had left the magazine and put out the first issue of McSweeney’s: it mostly featured killed articles from other magazines, but grew quickly and insularly.

It was contrarian. Even as technology was leveling the opportunities for writers to get their work out to the public (recall in Heartbreaking Work the “neurozine” bOING bOING that Might shared a space with; did you know you can now read that if you have the Internet?), the McSweeney’s site and quarterly felt like throwbacks to highbrow beyond-your-reach publishing: just for starters, it was a literary magazine; it was set in Garamond; the attention to details and obsession with minutiae made it seem artisanal. An early ‘about’ page on the website had a (willful?) misunderstanding of the medium:

But there was also a playing around that undercut any seriousness of intent, like the “Anti-folk” genre that Pandora is always trying to tell me I like. But still the books and quarterlies were consciously designed and meant to be kept/displayed/treasured. But still they were jokey. But totally serious. And mostly it really seemed like Eggers and the other writers had hit on something that no one had managed to get quite right before, which aesthetic I would define as: Like Donald Barthelme’s stuff but with actual hope and sweetness at its core; but architecturally complex, but unnecessarily so; but faux naïve in the way they would just blurt something out of place and then let everyone stare at it to see if it turned out to be true: I am thinking of Eggers’ pieces written under the pseudonym Lucy Thomas, like “The Employees at My Post Office, They Have a Good Time” which seems to be 100% about the employees at Lucy Thomas’ post office having a good time but has this in the middle of it:

You know, work can be fun, if you like the people you work with, and you make an effort to enjoy yourself. Someone I know has testicular cancer.

And there was not just the quarterly and not just the website; there was an actual store on 7th avenue. The store sold issues of the quarterly and books and then it sold other stuff. Here is me, in an email to a friend, around this time:

At the store there were lots of readings; there was a house band (to be clear: for a store) called One Ring Zero; I saw Zadie Smith and she was even shorter than you’re thinking. And then there were other readings done around the area; many of these involved field trips via chartered bus or panel discussions on itching or fire safety measures, or in Williamsburg at a bar/former mayonnaise factory, there were readings and performances that featured a free haircut given by Eggers.

Yet even beneath all of the obvious publicity stunt stuff, this really seemed like a brand new thing: you could be painfully sincere but the safety was always on because you were being sincere in a context of some unknowable irony. This was very seductive: it seemed like a solution to a lot of Writing Problems, and I’m sorry to say I can’t think of any young(ish) writer in New York at the time who was not affected by it.

In this context, Heartbreaking Work came out in February 2000 and spent 14 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.

A Heartbreaking Work

So, everything I just said, but times a million was what that book felt like. Here is an anecdote!

I went to a reading shortly after the book came out, and afterwards it went down like this:

I was in a line to get my copy of the book signed, and the further I moved up the line, the stupider I felt, because Eggers was (/is) basically my age, and I felt at the time that if I had written so personal a book, I would feel weird that people wanted me to autograph it. And I kept moving up the line and feeling increasingly awkward, like in Zeno’s paradox about the arrow never reaching its target because it keeps getting stupider.

And then there was just one person in front of me, a girl person, and she went to get her book signed, but her book was not Heartbreaking Work; it was Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Which I think her strategy was: He will see I am whimsical yet deep and therefore sleep with me due to everyone wanted to sleep with him.

But he signed her copy of Myth of Sisyphus without commenting on it, and then it was my turn, and whim took over (or maybe antiwhim, as I was trying to cancel out the previously established whim), and when Eggers looked up at me, instead of just telling him my name, I instead asked Eggers to forge Camus’ signature on my copy of the book. And Eggers (again, without any comment) wrote: “Oh the horror”.

Whiiiiiiiiich, that’s not Camus, that’s Joseph Conrad. So now everyone was stupid!

But anyway after this signing, we all got on a bus and went to see a gallery in lower Manhattan that was displaying paintings by elephants. Because, and this almost doesn’t seem like it could have actually happened, apparently during this period in Thailand’s history, all of the elephants were being captured and loaded up on methamphetamine and put to work in the circus or as black market laborers. And so two Russian artists, Komar and Melamid (they did the cover of Heartbreaking Work), were rescuing the elephants and having them paint things (like literally they held the paint brushes with their trunks) and then they (Komar and Melamid) were selling the paintings and then the money from the sale would go to house and feed the rescued elephants. Which, that plan doesn’t seem scalable, but it really was a real thing (unless it’s not) — there were actual paintings in the gallery; there were peanut shells on the floor.

Eggers was taking questions (“How long does it take an elephant to paint something?” “Is this real?” “Really?” “Really is it real, though?”) and someone asked how many paintings an elephant could do in one day if it were still on Elephant Meth. Eggers said, “I’m not going to answer that.”

Because I think with Might he was teaching San Francisco to be hard, and with McSweeney’s he was teaching New York to be soft?

Anyway, eventually there was a backlash.

A Backlash

Because of course there was a backlash: he was young; he was smart; he was talented; he “sold out”. He didn’t accept our submissions (mostly this reason). But also there came to be a “style” associated with the writing and with the movement and the circle of people around him and that style seemed self-defeating. (Perhaps aware of this, around this time, the McSweeney’s logo changed from an Ouroboros to a chair.)

If I had to pinpoint the source of the backlash, I’d say it was that everyone was waiting for orders that never came.

A recurring feature of the website is Lists and in thinking about this, I remembered one list from October 2000 by Bill Wasik that stuck with me: List of Ideas for Ideas for Lists. These include:

  • Lists that trivialize the serious
  • Lists that elevate the trivial

And then halfway through, damningly:

  • Lists of reasons why a certain sensibility is squandering the talent of an entire generation of writers

Which killed me, in 2000. I googled Bill Wasik to see what he was up to and the internet said, “Um, he’s that guy that works at Harper’s who invented flashmobs?”

What the McSweeney’s Thing felt most like was a flashmob where we were never told what to do. And during all this, with every writer in New York infected in some way by this aesthetic (around this time, Jonathan Safran Foer sprung fully formed from a used copy of A Crown of Feathers), Eggers jumped ship and went back to San Francisco where he formed an altruistic writing lab for underprivileged kids, and also started a yearly anthology for teens (Best American Nonrequired Reading) and started a magazine that privileged enthusiasm over critical thinking (though there was both) which featured in each issue an interview with a child. And left everyone in New York, and Brooklyn specifically, holding their cocks in their hands. Even the ladies, some of whom had grown ironic cocks.

So.

So. He believes the children are our future? I don’t know, I give up! I will say, reading the book again, it didn’t feel galvanizing? But this was of course: (1) my second time through, and (2) following twelve years of people using all of this book’s tricks for other purposes.

The tricks have not aged well for me, but aside from the bits where characters break the fourth wall, I was surprised to find them mostly cordoned off in the preamble: the goofing off on the legal page; the circumventing criticism by identifying it ahead of time; the introduction of Death in a line that’s meant to explain how he tightened up language (removing “Dude” from “Dude, she died”); the reverse foreshadowing (?) of including long sections that had been removed from the main book (which feature, about his portrait painting, his “inability to render someone without distorting them, clumsily, horribly” (which, come on) and the line “I like the scaffolding as much as I like the buildings”, which, COME ON) — all happen before the book proper.

Some of this is tedious (wait, another one: the author photo of Eggers with a dog and the caption “This is not their dog”: right? Because he already had a dog and it is the one that goes with “-and-pony show” (alt joke: “shaggy d~ story”)), but I’m not sure what the book would be without it, although this, from page xxiii about the title (but really about evvverrryyything) seems to get to the heart of what’s going on:

In the end, one’s only logical interpretation of the title’s intent is as a) a cheap kind of joke b) buttressed by an interest in lamely executed titular innovation (employed, one suspects, only to shock) which is c) undermined of course by the cheap joke aspect, and d) confused by the creeping feeling one gets that the author is dead serious

Which is echoed by this, halfway through the book:

We begin a pattern of almost immediate opinion-reversal and self-devouring. Whatever the prevailing thinking, especially our own, we contradict it.

The stuff that remained strong for me was a lot of the narrative (after all) and this ambivalence collapsing on itself, along with his successfully conveying an overall impression of his being barely able to get anything done. Like literally with several of the Toph parts, but also in scenes like the ending where it’s as if the camera is whip-panning between him and Toph playing Frisbee and also his mom dying and also some weird barbaric yawp of rage slash optimism: he is like a vaudevillian spinning plates during these parts, but keeping the plates going is literally the literal difference between life and death, literally.

And what it all really reminded me of this time around is the Laurie Anderson song, “The Dream Before” (based on the Walter Benjamin essay (about a Paul Klee painting (!))):

She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm is called Progress

Also, I did a Google Book Search and this is in Camus’ The Plague, apparently:

Among the heaps of corpses, the clanging bells of ambulances, the warnings of what goes by the name of fate, among unremitting waves of fear and agonized revolt, the horror that such things could be, always a great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn panicked people, a voice calling them back to the land of their desire, a homeland.

So.

Suggestions for further reading:

My crowd: Or, phase 5 by Bill Wasik in Harper’s: Wasik talks about and breaks down into tiny pieces the details of the invention of the Flashmob and its adherents

Stalking Dave Eggers by Elizabeth Ellen on Bookslut: This begins with Ellen holding up Heartbreaking Work and telling her daughter: “This is mommy’s new boyfriend. Isn’t he cute? Look at his hair. Isn’t that cute hair?” and the face you are making now, you will keep making that face through the whole thing.

Cult Worship by Ada Calhoun, in Nerve. The subtitle is Too cool for sex: My unrequited love for a McSweeney’s writer and it caused a stir!
It is worth reading, but also you can just read Neal Pollack’s response: “It’s hard to deny that the twee, detached men Calhoun describes in the piece existed. They certainly did, and such men still exist today. They’re called Men In Their 20s.”

Eggers interview in The Harvard Advocate: This was published in 2000 and college students rediscover it every few years and it’s all over the internet for a while and then it goes away again. David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech may have officially supplanted it, but it’s worth a read for its simultaneous anger and hopefulness, which is a good trick, even if it’s not a trick, at all.