by Michael Anft
So, it’s come to this: A wildly celebrated young author whose self-conscious, off-center style has won over both jaded critics and mush-minded memoir lovers is talking about keeping “a low profile” and “letting the work speak for itself.” A master of satire — and a leader of its media-skewering sect — wants to go hide in the woods from the phonies and their “spin.” Who the fuck does Dave Eggers think he is, J.D. Salinger?
The cause of our auteur’s consternation? In a recent Internet edition of the sardonic literary magazine Eggers publishes, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, (www.mcsweeneys.net) he blasts the New York Times for many sins, which followed the recent release of Eggers' softbound incarnation, which sports a printed-upside-down appendix and three separate covers. Times writer David Kirkpatrick, taken with the novelty of such packaging, viewed the latter as a publishing-industry ploy to sell more copies of the same book; Eggers didn’t, so he lambasted Kirkpatrick publicly by reprinting their entire e-mail correspondence in McSweeney’s. For this, other journos weighed in on the Web with their opinions. Eggers is, variably, a “sanctimonious bully, a petulant egomaniac, insufferable human being, narcissist, Adam Clymer, humorless and self-important.”
Such is the treatment accorded one who would make valid points — in this case, very valid ones — about the nature of the fourth estate. Nonetheless, with both the intensity of his riposte to Kirkpatrick, and the addition of 48 utterly dispensable pages to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers’ literary lily-gilding has become, um, a distraction.
To recap the principal and his principles: A 21-year-old magazine editor and decidedly unslackerlike wise guy loses both his parents to cancer, a little more than a month apart. Then he takes off on an odyssey of sorts with his 7-year-old brother, Christopher (nicknamed “Toph”), whom he essentially raises, although a sister purportedly bankrolls much of said upbringing, plus chips in with substantial time and energy. All of which
isn’t mentioned in Eggers’ otherwise obsessive memoir or its new, way-beyond-unfathomable appendix. Genius attempts to explain, in a fashion, how he feels he is exploiting his brother’s young life, his parents’ deaths and the reader’s patience by indulging in said work. Then, he writes it anyway, offering a genuinely heartfelt effort that somehow refuses to trip itself up on its author’s fin de mille reflexive self-reflectiveness.
So, why add an appendix? Because Eggers wants to reshape the nature of publishing as much as he wants to publish — and this may be part of his problem. With Eggers, there’s always a shitload of subtext, and in this case, that means adding little tidbits and opinionated asides because he can. The result is a mishmash of unnecessary stories, medical updates and travel-magazine drivel about an encounter with a whale. Why should we care?
Hey, if the guy truly wants to tell the press to fuck off, fine. All the more reason for him to spend his energies getting cracking on the next book, next magazine, next whatever. Spare us the wink-wink completism and the irritable-bowel attacks, and just get to work. OK, Dave?
That’s the trouble with geniuses. You never know where their heads are at.