Eggers will always remain the character he played in 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'
In his novel In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman says, “When a writer is asked which authors have influenced her, it’s often another question she answers … Imitation or similarities in style or even content may be how influence is perceived by the reader but such things may not capture the greatest influence one writer has on another.”
Dave Eggers was never an influence on me but his writings and activities have taught me a lot. That a man, taken so unquestionably and seriously as a writer, can play so many roles, from creating Might to founding McSweeney’s and 826 Valencia, is at once a calming thought and reassuring of that recycled adage that there is no specific “lifestyle” to which one must confirm in this line of work.
David Eggers was born in March 1970, the third of four children. He grew up near Chicago, and wanted to get a degree in journalism, before both his parents passed away of cancer, six weeks apart from one another. This led him to leave college and relocate to California to look after his considerably younger brother. He worked freelance and did graphic designing, while his brother went to school. Subsequently, he took over a local paper Cups and turned it into his short-lived, satirical magazine Might.
These were the experiences he used to write his (fictionalized) memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, forever (at least, till now) capitulating him into that sad and silly group of writers whose first work is their best yet.
It is a situation that, while seemingly disconcerting to the writer and his mentality, perhaps works well in Eggers’s favor. HWSG is as sincere as it can get, but is simultaneously an odd and delightful trial of indulgence, of a rare kind that cares rather than demands to be cared for. At times it is angry—as if a memoir of such notice should not be. Mostly though, it is funny, comic in its inventive gimmicks, in its obvious joking and juggling to hide the pain and sorrow behind.
Eggers reproduces this aspect of the book quite literally in his book readings. In a Late Night TV appearance, he told Conan O’Brien that he “was so nervous that [he’d] do anything to distract people from [him],” once hiring three exotic dancers to dance on a table behind him while he read from his book. On other occasions, he would plant his friends in the crowd to heckle him, sometimes with “three-four part questions, starting with number 3” or discuss their personal problems right in the middle of the reading.
Eggers, he would readily agree, is a regular guy, his core intact with the Midwestern values he grew up with, no matter what the wordplays, the wavy hairstyles or, the bohemian sensibilities of living in the coasts, say about him. It is perhaps also how he wanted to raise his eight year old brother Toph in the book, not wanting to die under the “oldness” of responsibility, but to live life and have fun, to make art of one’s own anxious needs for distraction.
McSweeney’s, the nonprofit publishing company Eggers founded, has published a diverse array of authors, from Michael Chabon to David Byrnes, put out a semi-eccentric literary quarterly journal, a nonfiction monthly magazine named The Believer, and (their most representative output) a daily humor site called, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, where comedy pieces are uploaded every day, all of them managing to convey a style almost unique to the site itself. Indeed, McSweeney’s and Eggers have managed to cultivate a “movement”—characterized by its everyman humor, its sincere literature, and, among others, its provocations that come from a place of innocence—very much needed in America in the 21st century.
Dave Eggers’s later works drifted away from himself; he began to target other lives. He fictionalized Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who went to the United States as part of the Lost Boys of Sudan program for his 2006 novel What is the What. He wrote about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American from New Orleans, Louisiana who had ridden out Hurricane Katrina in his uptown home, travelling in canoes to rescue his neighbors, in his 2009 book Zeitoun. Early on in this year, he came out with The Monk of Mokha, centering on the life of a Yemeni-American who goes back to his country to “resurrect the ancient art of Yemeni coffee” only to be stuck there when war breaks out.
These recurring bouts of variety in his projects have doubtless enriched his bibliography. His take on Maurice Sendak’s picture book is touching in its editorial incorporation of Eggers’s own boyhood, even his novels the Circle and A Hologram for the King are noteworthy in how topics such as technology, the financial crash, and the possible future of American irrelevancy are tackled.
For me though, also an elder brother with a younger brother of considerable age difference, Eggers will always remain the character he played in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, someone who wouldn’t mind being the adult but would never surrender to the blandness that might be involved in doing that, someone who would show you, with style, that it is cool to be responsible.
Rafee Shaams is an essayist and short story writer. His story collection Who Even Cares Who Cares? was published by Bengal Publications in 2016.