Magazine article The Spectator

Successfully Too Clever by Half

Magazine article The Spectator

Successfully Too Clever by Half

Article excerpt

A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS

by Dave Eggers

Picador, L9.99, pp. 375

There's only one possible criticism you could make of Dave Eggers's book which the author hasn't already foreseen and forestalled, and it's not one for which he could fairly be held accountable. As an American he presumably doesn't know (or care) that frisbee-throwing - which in his remarkable memoir stands for youth, freedom and triumph over adversity - is over here a game for wimps. That point made, there's no other question to be asked about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which isn't raised and dealt with in the course of the book.

Is this entire work, from the title on, a kind of elaborate joke on the reader? Is Eggers so self-aware, so self-analytical, so post-modernistically hyper-conscious of the way medium distorts content as to be incapable of feeling an emotion - let alone describing it - in simple innocence? Is he exploiting the suffering both of others and himself, in making a story of his life and hard times? Does the book play disconcertingly on our faith in its truthfulness, swerving as it repeatedly does from straight, apparently veracious narration into evidently artificial fantasies in which characters address the reader, discuss the author and generally break the rules of verisimilitude? Is it, in brief, just too damn clever? The answers are yes, yes, yes, yes and, to the last question, yes three times over, and what a joy it is to encounter cleverness of such mightily overweening, all-conquering proportions.

When Eggers was 20 both his parents died of cancer within a month of each other. It fell to him to assume responsibility for his brother Toph, then aged seven. His book is, among many other things, an account of what it is like to rear a child when you're the wrong sex (even in Berkeley, California the people waiting at the school gate are still mostly female), and when you haven't yet learned to cook or clean or get out of bed for yourself, let alone for a recalcitrant somebody else.

It's a story that's almost too potent, too interesting. Even the word `orphan', while accurately describing his and Toph's condition, comes freighted with associations which, for a writer of Eggers's wit and selfawareness, renders it all but unusable. Revisiting a group of old college friends, Eggers feels himself `deformed . . . a hundred years old'. Everyone else is swapping news about jobs and lovers: he's in town to retrieve his parents' ashes. …

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