I finally relented and started reading Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work in earnest. I needed some narrative respite from the critical books I've been slogging through.
Eggers is a skilled writer indeed, preternaturally adept at the American I-narrative mode, and Heartbreaking Work, in its first few chapters, often manages to be both sad and exhilarating. Still I find, now around a third of the way through the book, that I can't stay with it. There's a priggishness in this narrator, a suburban kind of whitebread righteousness, that finally starts to gall.
Yes, I'm well aware Eggers is conscious of his contradictions, that often he is satirizing himself, but I feel still a kind of superficiality in his ground, which seems to be something like: "I am a strong and smart member of my generation who faced up to an extraordinarily painful life change. I am here groping for meaning, imposing my meaning, here as you watch." This may be enough to generate a lengthy narrative, it's true, but it isn't enough to make that narrative worth reading through.
The problem with this narrator is that there's no tradition of thought, no spiritual or philosophical tradition, informing his self-making: he is almost completely defined, and doesn't seem to have any problem being defined, by his familial background on the one hand, and the most banal elements of American culture on the other: sports, the budding start-up culture of the early 1990s, the ephemera of youth fashion, MTV. His ideas of what is necessary to give his brother Toph a healthy childhood are taken over wholesale from his suburban Midwest background and remain completely unexamined. On the other hand, his ideas of the role of creativity--what is valuable and potentially transformative in the world--come direct from early 1990s American youth culture. He swallows that absurd solipsistic notion that a new generation's styles and concerns are interesting or worthwhile simply because they come from a new generation.
I am roughly of Eggers' age, born a few years earlier in the same suburban Midwest. I was painfully reminded of this when the specter of MTV first appeared in his book. Eggers writes of hearing news that MTV's The Real World (the seminal 1990s reality show that followed the "real" lives of 20-somethings) was going to film its upcoming season in San Francisco, where he was located, and how this news was taken in his office of peers:
They are looking for a new cast.I also remember when MTV's show came out. It was the early 1990s. I was in Madison, Wisconsin, working in a coffee shop while my wife finished grad school. I also remember talking scornfully of that show, and of MTV "culture" in general, with friends. But the difference is that I don't think any of us ever actually watched the show. We knew of it, had seen a part or a segment of it in this or that Madison living room, but we didn't actually watch such things because, frankly, we were too busy with study or work or spending time together in ways other than sitting in front of TV. I myself was busy reading and writing and working and loving and thinking. And struggling through my own spiritual development. So that, really-- MTV? What for fuck's sake is MTV?
At the office we have a few hearty laughs about it.
"Has anyone seen the show?"
"Some of it."
We're all lying. Everyone's seen the show. We all despise it, are enthralled by it, morbidly curious. Is it interesting because it's so bad, because the stars of it are so profoundly uninteresting? Or is it because in it we recognize so much that is maddeningly familiar?
Eggers is far better at spinning a narrative than I am. It's disappointing, then, to see how his novel/memoir moves along. Soon enough his narrator is interviewing at the MTV offices in hopes of being one of the interesting youths featured in its San Francisco season. I put the book down finally during this interview. It's depressing to have someone so good at writing cover pages with such dribble.
I certainly applaud and admire Eggers for his co-founding of 826 National. Some time I'll give a try reading some of his later work. For now it's on to other things: Beckett's Watt, Jack Miles' God: A Biography, Harold Bloom, a new piece by JS Porter; and, as always, the Bible.