Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eggers On His Face

Is it possible to both admire and be totally exasperated by someone at the same time? Usually, I hold those feelings at alternating times, about different people. For example, I admire Calamity Jane, and am exasperated by Anna Wintour. See? Different. Not the same. The closest I've come in recent thought is admiring early 1990s crazy-SEX Madonna, and being exasperated by faux-English scary-arm-muscles Madonna.

But Dave Eggers sort of ruins everything, because I simultaneously really like him and also want to give him a swirlie. I first encountered Eggers in 2001, when he published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or, as I refer to it in my head, What The Hell Happened To The Last Third Of This Book?, because never have I encountered a piece of writing that falls so spectacularly apart as this one. I was charmed when I first picked it up - it's funny! It's also long, and goes off the rails in that last third. Like, off the rails, into a ravine, into a church full of orphans at the bottom of that ravine. And the orphans are singing The Lion King soundtrack. And they're blind! And then they get smushed by this trainwreck of a book, barreling down on them. And it's Christmas Eve.

Okay, the moral of that paragraph is that this book, his first, published when he was 30 years old to wide critical acclaim, sort of encapsulates the whole Dave Eggers experience for me. I am so delighted by him...in parts. And other parts make me crazy-eyed with rage.

Because there are parts of Dave Eggers that I really, honestly like. His work with 826 Valencia is so interesting and cool: he started a non-profit center in San Fransisco to tutor kids how to write. That's the kind of thing that makes me want to weep with the self-effacing humble-pie awesomeness of it all. It's cool. It inspired elaborate fantasies of moving to the Bay Area to work with the 826 Valencia kids, hanging out with Anne Lamott on the weekends, going to picnics in Marin County, being really at peace with myself, and having perfect, non-disgusting dreadlocks. Because that's what goes on in my brain when I find out about a sweet project.

Eggers married the 826 Valencia project with his editing role at the helm of the Best American Non-Required Reading, giving those kids a voice and a sense of agency in the often-incomprehensible worlds of professional editing and publishing. This awes me. I love that. I love those books anyway, because they're sources of the weird and the wonderful, but Eggers and his band of merry child prodigies made them 3D interesting; the story of those stories is as interesting as the stories themselves.

And then Eggers has to go and ruin it by actually writing stuff down and publishing it. There are some writers who I would always read. David Foster Wallace is an obvious choice, but Barbara Ehrenreich and Jonathan Lethem also get votes. They bring a clarity to their writing, even at their most convoluted and insane (David): it feels like, once you're at the end of the sentence, or chapter, or book, that you're better. Your soul feels healthier. Good writing is a gift - sure, for the author, in the gifted-and-talented mold, if you're so inclined - but it's also a gift to the reader. A little present.

Let's just say that Dave Eggers does not present his readers with thoughtful gifts. If his writing was a Father's Day present, it would be a tie. It's obvious. I loathe his writing because it makes me want to throw the book down the stairs and dementedly scream, "I could write this!" Because, and I am not being proud or boastful or any of those other emotions that Mennonites are so afraid of, here: I could write that.

Let me give you a for instance. Eggers wrote the screenplay for Away We Go, which stars John Kransinski and Maya Rudolph's fictional tilted uterus. It's a movie about finding your home. It features the characters literally visiting different cities, seeing which one might be the best for raising their unborn child. At one point, the father-to-be promises to love his partner even if she gets so fat that he can't find her vagina. I think it's meant to be endearing - they say vagina! they're comfortable with different sizes! their love transcends stereotypical white-bread bullshit! I don't know. I can't be the only one that thinks that's kind of gross and weird.

But proclamations about vaginae aside, Eggers strikes me as a remarkably earnest writer. In his films, the characters are searching for comfort and love - the needs of children. I'm not shitting on comfort or love. I'm a huge fan of both. But stories about needing to find comfort and/or love tend to be about children, or intensely damaged adults. Combined with a somewhat stolid prose style, Eggers' stories are needy. They want to be loved, desperately. They strive. I'm not into striving. Striving, especially in writing, does a disservice to the reader (who feels cajoled into liking something) and the story (which should be told, not shaped and massaged into something easy to digest).

So Dave Eggers leaves me in an interesting place. I want to support him, because he does interesting work almost everywhere except his chosen profession. I've read his books, and I want to dunk them in pitchers of iced tea and leave them for ants to eat. But his side projects are so cool. But: bad writing. But: awesome non-profit. But: blergh. I'll leave it at that. Dave Eggers, you make me feel blergh. You've reduced me to nonsense babbling. I hope you're happy.


  1. I probably couldn't disagree with your more in terms of your judgement of the quality of Eggers' output - A Heartbreaking Work is the best thing I've read since I discovered Atwood, though admittedly I've still not braved Foster Wallace (AND A BILLION OTHER AWESOME WRITERS) - but your argument is a pretty good one.

    I think his writing's needy too, but actually I find it endearing and oddly beautiful - Eggers doesn't strike me as a particularly damaged human being (and I heard him speak for a couple of hours at the Melbourne Writer's Fest a few years back, where he seemed remarkably more comfortable than I'd been expecting), but nor do I find his writing to be emotionally undeveloped or juvenile; I find it to be profound and insightful in a rather unique way. But I might just be into striving :)

  2. It's the same trap that Jonathan Safran Foer falls into, for me: on first glance, the writing is lovely and poetic and truthful and amazing. But, as I slog through the contents of the actual book, it stop being lovely and amazing and starts becoming oppressive. His writing starts begging from the reader - at least, this is the impression I get - for delighted responses and chuckles of recognition. I hate when a book asks me to do that.

    And, may I please beg you to read some DFW? His essay require zero bravery and are spectacularly entertaining.

  3. I hadn't connected Dave Eggers with the 826 Valencia project... or more like, I heard of the 826 project before I had any idea who Dave Eggers was, so there was no connection to make. Agreed: 826 Valencia is inspiring and awesome.

    I have only read one book by Dave Eggers, and that is his recent novelization of the Where The Wild Things Are movie. There were things about it that I loved, but the ending, frankly, blew (no closure, it just... stopped) and I agree with your critique of his writing as incredibly needy. It worked for Wild Things, because Max is eight years old and the whole reason he goes to the island and meets the wild things in the first place is due to his eight-year-old intense neediness, but I can't imagine reading a book about adults with the same neediness. It was an exhausting read.

  4. God I wish I had time to read things that weren't in political journals. Suffice to say, I haven't read Foer either, though I did see the film of Everything is Illuminated, which was simply excellent. One day I'll receive tenure, then I'll start reading (things irrelevant to my job) again.