Monday, June 25, 2007

Reading group: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

'Oh god, no!' said Jenny when John suggested for our reading group A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers' first-person account of bringing up his younger brother after the death of his parents. Then: 'Oh, you mean that's the title!?' and everyone laughed.

In an extended cod-Acknowledgements section at the start of the book, the author addresses this very question of the effect of the title on potential readers - The author wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He too has reservations - and there follows a tongue-in-cheek history of the title choice and a deconstruction of all of its possible connotations and implications about the book, the author and readers' expectations

Even earlier, right from the verso page of the book we are alerted to the fact that this is a book which calls into question the whole nature and status of authors and books:
First published by Simon and Schuster, New York, a division of a larger and more powerful company called Viacom Inc, which is wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled.
'So what is it, this book?' John asked the group when we met for the discussion. 'Is it a novel, or is it a memoir?' Once again, in the Acknowledgements and a preceding Preface, the author anticipates the question, and while insisting the book is a memoir stresses the fictive techniques he has used - the dialogue has been almost entirely reconstructed - and throws into the air the notion of distinguishing between memoir and fiction with this suggestion: if you send in your copy of this book ... [the author] will send you, in exchange, a 3.5" floppy disk, on which will be a complete digital manuscript of this work, albeit with names and locations changed, in such a way that the only people who will know who is who are those whose lives have been included, though thinly disguised. Voila! Fiction!

As a writer I was very taken by this and by the way that the book itself addresses this issue throughout as well as the moral implications of writing openly about one's own life. I also found the book brilliantly written: witty, energetic, yet utterly moving, the author masterfully in control of his material.

Not everyone agreed. Most did agree that the prose was brilliant and from her counsellor's viewpoint Clare found the narrator Eggers' emotional dilemmas accurately as well as movingly depicted. However she and most others were irritated by the Preface and Acknowledgements and skipped them altogether (I had to admit that I had felt the same before reading the rest of the book, but had gone back and read them with relish afterwards). Madeleine (who wasn't present but rang up beforehand) said that she had no problem with someone writing about himself, but she was pretty irritated by him writing about writing about himself. Most people got bored in the section I really loved, in which the narrator undergoes a clearly non-naturalistic and self-ironic interview for a Big-Brother-type reality TV programme, which is the starkest comment on the theme of personal exposure v fiction:

[TV producer/casting person:] But what about privacy?

[Narrator Eggers:] Cheap, overabundant, easily gotten, lost, regained, bought, sold...

[TV producer/casting person:]
... what about ...exhibitionism?

[Narrator Eggers:]
...Someone wants to celebrate their existence and you call it exhibitionism. It's niggardly.

However, while I saw this as Eggers successfully deflating potential criticisms, and Ann said she saw the whole book as a piss-take, others still thought the book self-indulgent and Eggers as thus less in control of his material than John, Doug, Ann and I thought. Hans said with irritation that in any case he didn't see all this self-referential stuff as excusing Eggers at all, it simply made matters worse.

Even those of us in most favour of the book, however, had to agree that it suffered structurally from the memoir mode: a longeur recounting the running of Eggers' alternative-lifestyle magazine, Might, created a slackening of narrative tension which spoilt the arc of the true story, that of Eggers' grief at the loss of his parents, and we didn't feel that on this occasion Eggers managed to dispel such criticism with his pre-emptive Acknowledgements warning that this section of the book should be skipped by anyone not interested in the doings of twenty-somethings.

Most people in the group seemed to share the feeling which Eggers challenges or at least explores in the book, that writing a memoir is a more self-indulgent activity than writing a novel. I said that, as Eggers indicates, while memoirs inevitably fictionalise, many novels are hardly any less autobiographical, and it can be thus the case that writing a novel, in which the names and locations are changed, is a safer, and therefore less brave thing to do.

What about the problem of protecting others, though? said Clare. I agreed that that was an important issue: once, I had written a very autobiographical story and had fully intended to sell it as fiction, but then a chance came up to publish it as memoir, which I did instead. As a result, like Eggers I had then had to consult with the people I'd written about in the story, and had had to make changes they'd asked for - which created the paradox that, since the change did not match with my memory, the 'memoir' was to me less autobiographical than the 'fiction' had been!

That's one of the great things about fiction, we decided: however autobiographical a story really is, as long as it is presented as fiction, then the author can always deny it with impunity!

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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