Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Growing Up in Public 

David Eggers and Ann Powers

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
There's something missing from Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Something's been overlooked, even amidst a massive publishing industry buzz that's scrutinized Eggers' every word, every media connection -- every italicized interjection -- that it seems the book should have: a typeface note.

After all, a typeface note is a Dave Eggers sort of thing. With his journal McSweeney's -- and before that Might -- he's reveled in tinkering with the minutiae of publishing, from the table of contents page of Might ("Pages 76-84: Get this: a feature about all-guy bands!") to the copyright page of Genius, on which he sees fit to include details about his height, weight, and sexual orientation. Agate type has never had it so good, and it's not hard to imagine that Eggers must have something to say about Caslon, Bodoni, and Times New Royal. "The truth is in the details" isn't just a cliché in his work -- it's gospel.

When Eggers is good, he can make details into real art. And, believe it or not, once upon a time Eggers wasn't all that great. Back in 1992, he did a political cartoon for SF Weekly (That SF Weekly? Yes!) called Swell that was usually cringe-worthy in its squishy bleeding-heartisms. Eventually, though, the strip evolved into Smart Feller (later Smarter Feller), which started out by taking all of San Francisco's easy targets -- Frank Jordan, hippies, Journey, the Examiner Magazine, guys with goatees -- and napalming them. For weeks Eggers produced brilliant strips on the guy in the Gold Club ads, and by the time he was done, Smarter Feller was a surreal commentary on nothing in particular, a stick-figure Seinfeld whose main character was a talking handbag. Like a lot of Eggers' projects, it was irreverent, simple, silly, often self-indulgent, and inspired by a youthful snottiness. Hey, what do you expect from a college-educated guy in his 20s?

Well, that's the main question Genius is forced to answer. "[T]he lives of people in their early twenties ... are very difficult to make interesting," Eggers confesses in the book's introduction, knowing what he's in for (oh, how he knows -- more on that later). Roughly speaking, the book is a slightly fictionalized memoir of how Eggers spent his 20s in the Bay Area. After both his parents died of cancer within weeks of each other, Eggers and his younger brother Toph left their home in Lake Forest, an affluent Chicago suburb, and came here, forcing Eggers to play two roles: Smart Guy Making His Way in the World, and Parent.

The latter role is the subject of some of Eggers' best writing, and on this point the rave reviews and publishing buzz are almost unimpeachably dead-on: The first hundred or so pages of Genius, which focus on the death of Eggers' parents and his first Bay Area days with Toph, are passionate, funny, brilliant, evocative, insightful, emotionally relentless, and just plain damn good writing. Conveying anguish without talking about how anguished he is, Eggers dares to find the humor -- or at least the absurdity -- in his predicament. The opening section obsesses almost joyfully over small somber details like how light his mother is when he carries her, and enthuses over the fun he has with Toph, which mainly involves frisbees and making dishes like "The Mexican-Italian War" (ground beef and spaghetti sauce, served in tortillas). It's enough to make you forgive his continuous references to french fries as "potatoes, served in the French manner."

After that, the book is kind of uneven. "The book thereafter is kind of uneven," Eggers writes in the introduction. While it's nice he's willing to confess to this, his confession doesn't excuse him. In writing about his Might days and his attempt to get onto the San Francisco edition of MTV's The Real World, he persistently invades his text with commentaries on his own state of living. "Instead of lamenting the end of unmediated experience," he writes in a section in which a friend overdoses and gets his stomach pumped, "I will celebrate it, revel in the simultaneous living of an experience and its dozen or so echoes in art and media, the echoes making the experience not cheaper but richer, aha! being that much more layered, the depth luxurious, not soul-sucking or numbing but edifying, ramifying."

The style is a gimmick, and not even a particularly new one -- anybody who's read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, or the subtitle alone of Slaughterhouse Five, is familiar with it. But in both those books, especially Wallace's, the hyperreferentiality is an informed device, a technique designed to draw the reader further into the narrative. Eggers uses it instead to push the reader out of it. Making his characters break character, turning Toph into a psychiatrist telling Eggers the deep-seated reasons why he does the things he does, reads like Eggers' way of not giving critics a way to criticize. The opening notes offer a rundown of the book's overarching themes -- "The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance," "The Solipsism as Likely Result of Economic, Historical and Geopolitical Privilege Aspect" -- but any reader who's willing to meet Eggers' writing halfway (which isn't hard to do, it's so well crafted) can glean those themes of loss, privilege, pathos, parenthood/brotherhood, etc. without him holding up cue cards.

So why do it? There's another overarching theme of the book, but this time it's one Eggers never quite gets around to stating explicitly, though it's unavoidable once you notice it, to wit:

Dave Eggers Thinks You're Stupid.

He only comes right out and says this once, in a scene set during Might's greatest moment, a prank issue in which Eggers put together a lengthy feature about the untimely death of Eight Is Enough star Adam Rich, who wasn't actually dead. Combing his brother's hair, he explains to Toph what a eulogy is:

"... when celebrities die, suddenly everyone cares, they're given these massive funerals, people cry, people weep even though they've only known the guy on TV, some character he's played, lines he's read ..."

"Huh. And people will believe this?"

"Yeah. People are dumb."

A page later Toph breaks character and calls him on this arrogance ("... you cannot stand the fact that this silly person, this Adam Rich person, who you feel is nowhere near as smart as you people ..."), but once the Dave Eggers Thinks You're Stupid theme is acknowledged it becomes irritating and casts Eggers in a glow not of brilliance, but of arrogance. Certainly it took a bit of arrogance for Eggers to write this book, and while it's nobody's business to tell Eggers how to grieve his loss or even how to write about it, by the end of the book he's riffing on his own self-awareness instead of presenting a narrative. By sharing with you how he's sharing everything with you, Eggers eventually sounds like he's hiding, which runs counter to the point -- and worth -- of any memoir.

Ann Powers spins a somewhat similar tale in Weird Like Us, and runs into similar problems. Like Eggers, Powers grew up in an upper-middle-class environment and came to San Francisco in the early '90s to sort out her identity. She worked at SF Weekly as well, writing about music and penning a popular column, Street Beat, before leaving for New York City (like Eggers) for a job writing about music at the New York Times, where her understanding of the why of the Backstreet Boys and her ability to write about female musicians without falling into the women-in-rock trap gives her an important role in the Gray Lady's arts pages. If Eggers spun the story of his 20s around himself, Powers tries to couch her own tales around the nebulous concept of "bohemia." The nebulous aspect is the problem -- Powers continues to reference it, but never quite gets around to defining it.

Powers excuses herself from answering the question of what bohemia is in the introduction, writing that her story is "one chapter in a saga whose last page will never come." Instead, she breaks her book down into chapters that take on a particular theme in the bohemian lifestyle, which roughly speaking are: family, sex, drugs, work, thrift shopping, art, and the concept of "selling out." All of these are valid topics, and San Francisco has provided a perfect backdrop for Powers' investigations -- such as they are. Her approach is usually to trot out an obvious fact, quote, or statistic about the topic in question and then to tell stories of her personal experiences to make a case for how interesting her lifestyle was.

Unlike Eggers, Powers feels that the lives of people in their 20s are in fact quite easy to make interesting -- there's a whole ferment of experimentation with sex, drugs, and personality in general, and she gives those stories a weight, worth, and power surprisingly often. Writing about a close friend's experience in becoming a cocaine addict, Powers offers a confessional that limns the gray areas of drug use. "I know some people will wonder why I don't hate those drugs for what they did to her," she writes. "Of course I wanted to save Marie when she plunged into the vast emptiness. ... But it was her emptiness she'd left me for; the drugs just took her there. She would have gone anyway. ... If she'd flung her body from the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn't have blamed gravity for pulling her down."

Still, there's a sense that Powers has missed an opportunity here, a chance to write a defining book about coming of age during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Maybe it's understandable that she wrote neither a history of bohemia in America (too scholarly) nor a strict first-person memoir about her San Francisco days (too self-indulgent), but there's little in Weird Like Us that makes her generation seem unique from any other. Thrift shopping, working shitty jobs, eating mac and cheese, and listening to cool music are all decades-old American traditions in youth culture, and Powers' book doesn't give her narrative a particular historical place.

And by the time she's done, when she hits the "Selling Out" chapter, she's writing guiltily. "[T]here is no better example of a sellout than me," she writes. "I work for the biggest newspaper in the country -- when I'm not publishing celebrity profiles in those slimy music glossies." Her escape hatch is Eggers-esque: You can't sell out if you're aware of the selling out concept.

In interviewing her old friends and acquaintances from those heady days, Powers uncovers the not-terribly-shocking fact that as people hit their 30s, they start to settle down and look for stability, though they do retain some of their countercultural ideologies. And some, the writerly types, sit down and write books that could've been titled Stuff I Did in My 20s, except nobody would buy a book with that title, however well written.

Perhaps in the future Eggers and Powers will write more books and tell more stories -- and this time, settled down and stable, they won't feel any particular need to apologize for who they are, which is a sign of maturity, in writers and anybody else.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"