The frenzy surrounding Dave Eggers and his debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, reached a certain kind of climax in late April. Eggers had already been beatified by critics, his book lovingly reviewed as a major breakthrough, and the journal he currently edits, McSweeney's, enshrined as a must-read, when The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani grouped Eggers among the emergent ranks of "pale-reds"--writers who have fused "the cerebral and the visceral, the high and the low, the world of ideas and the world of raw experience" to transcend the distinction Philip Rahv famously drew between the "palefaces" and "redskins" of American literature.
If it was weird, in a meta sort of way, that A.H.W.O.S.G. inspired such gargantuan buzz--messianism and the repercussions of fame being central themes of the book itself--it was typical of that buzz that Kakutani compared Eggers not just to such postmodernists as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon but also to post-post-postmodernist/ cryptofictionalists like David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody. The comparison is not wholly inapt; there is a manic brilliance to A.H.W.O.S.G. (as the book is called in its own pages) that recalls Wallace's best work, and both Wallace and Moody are in some sense Eggers's artistic confreres--each has contributed to McSweeney's and, for that matter, blurbed A.H.W.O.S.G. itself. And yet Eggers is different.
For all his pokes and tickles, Eggers's memoir is just that. Instead of a narrative fun house built on endless subbasements of allusion, with counter-meanings and authorial intrusions lurking in every shadow, Eggers offers the literary equivalent of a split-level: On the one hand, there is the memoir, and on the other hand, the running commentary on the memoir. His various prefaces, flow charts, and introductory comments on theme, which are hilarious and a nice take on the whole genre, also tell readers, quite accurately, what to expect and when to expect it. When Eggers fractures the narrative--at one point in a conversation between Eggers and his seven-year-old brother Toph, Toph breaks character to spend several pages discussing with Eggers the various dilemmas of memoir, such as the compression of time--he does so cleanly. Where he does spiral into a kind of Wallace-like knowingness, most conspicuously in the preface ("While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality. Further ... he also plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality," etc.), Eggers eventually lands on solid ground. His knowingness about knowingness about knowingness is, really, just knowingness.
All told, A.H.W.O.S.G. is less an anti-memoir than an ultra-memoir, almost confessional in its eagerness to put virtually every question of substance, memory, and motive plainly before the reader. And the habits that mark Eggers's writing--the suspicion of all that purports to be authentic, the constant urge to peer behind the curtain--seem less like examples of "the latest postmodern hardware," as Kakutani puts it, than characteristics of a certain generational vernacular, whose sources are widely recognized (six hours of television a day, advertising metastasized to every cranny of life, and the conventions of post-Watergate journalism, to name a few), but whose real purpose is just as widely misunderstood. Eggers's language is one born for cultural self-defense--not disengagement, in other words, but re-engagement. A.H.W.O.S.G., which follows Eggers from the near-simultaneous deaths of his parents through his move out to San Francisco to raise Toph, is not at all cynical. On the contrary, it is imbued with an almost desperate longing--more than just a product of Eggers's legitimately heartbreaking subject--to find some kind of irreducible truth in it all.
And not just for Eggers. It is fair to say that he has aimed A.H.W.O.S.G. squarely at his (and my) generation and the predicament in which we find ourselves. On the one hand, the notion of "our generation" is largely a marketing fiction, refracted in a thousand Pepsi commercials (and bloodily vivisected in the defunct pages of Might, Eggers's first magazine). But it is also one pervasive enough to dominate our sense of identity and purpose, creating the circumstances for what is simultaneously a collective struggle and, as A.H.W.O.S.G. amply demonstrates, a personal one. "Don't you see that I have done this for you? I pretend that I do not but I do," Eggers cries out--to his generation, his "lattice"--toward the end of the book. "I stand before you millions, 47 million, 54, 32, whatever, you know what I mean, you people." The tools of Eggers's undoing must also serve as his weapons--which makes things difficult. Might, founded to save a generation, still wrestled over what to call it. "This will be," Eggers recounts in A.H.W.O.S.G., "the very first meaningful magazine in the history of civilization created by and for us twentysomethings (we try alternatives, to no avail: people in their twenties? people of twenty?)."
Back in its heyday, Might was not alone in pondering such questions. The early 1990s produced a bumper crop of small-circulation journals uniquely attuned to the cultural moment--that is, the three- or four-year window during which the newsweeklies and chat shows were exchanging one conventional wisdom about Eggers's twenty-somethings, the slacker/Nirvana/grunge hypothesis, for another, the energetic/can-do/e-generation hypothesis. (For a good illustration, compare Time's scolding 1990 cover story "Twenty-something" with one from 1997, "Great Xpectations.") Three in particular stand out today: Eggers's Might; Hermenaut, founded in Boston by Joshua Glenn in 1992; and the Chicago-based Baffler, which was founded in 1988 by two agnostic grad students named Thomas Frank and Keith White, but seemed to find its voice during the Gen-X craze of the early 1990s. "You wonder about the nature of twenty-somethings?" Frank and White raged in a 1992 essay, aiming at the Boomer media mandarins who were commissioning so much of the drivel. "Here's your answer: we are twenty-nothing, forever lost to your suburban platitudes, lost to the simple blather of your TV, deaf to your non-politics."
Each of the three has taken slightly different approach. The Baffler, as may already be obvious, tends to favor polemic (favorite targets: the "alternative" music industry, Fast Company, and Wired). Hermenaut operates as a sort of freelance department of philosophy, minus the jargon and tweed. Might, when it was still around, had a more satiric, prankster sensibility: One memorable article faked the death of child star Adam Rich as a take on celebrity memorial journalism. (There are also a few notable successors: Adbusters does advertising criticism almost as well as The Baffler, and Suck.com's pseudonymous pamphleteers include many contributors to Hermenaut, Might, and The Baffler.)
But whatever the mode of attack, they all share a sense of the basic problem at hand. Commerce has thoroughly colonized culture; real dissent--cultural, political, artistic--is being replaced by, as Frank once wrote, "soaps that liberate us, soda pops that are emblems of individualism, and counter-hegemonic hamburgers." (Or, as Frank & Co. put it in the more overtly political formulation of their 1997 collection, Commodify Your Dissent, "Contemporary capitalism has marshaled the forces of culture, whatever they are, to ensconce itself in power and to insulate itself from criticism to an almost entirely unprecedented extent.") There is also a sense that consumer culture has achieved a certain apogee with their own generation--the first for whom television, thoroughly embedded in the cultural landscape, has become the chief source for just about every kind of information, art, and entertainment.
Significantly, both The Baffler and Hermenaut, founded by refugees from academe, aim specifically at resuscitating generalism. Academic-style criticism--with its hyperspecialization, obsession with theory, and love of relativism--is not only conspicuously absent from their pages, but conspicuously maligned. Their writers aim for accessibility and, within the confines of somewhat erratic publishing schedules, some kind of topicality. Like most people of a certain age, they tend to be intimate with the mundanery of American pop culture, comfortably situated in its mutterings even while criticizing it ferociously. There is plenty of irony to go around, of course, but it is the redemptive kind: a means, not an end, a pair of X-ray glasses, a way of filtering out distractions and homing in on what is real. And although there is an air of cultural secession hovering above the whole scene--particularly The Baffler--the critical style is refreshingly occupied with the everyday, like temping or gangsta rap. Or Quentin Tarantino. Or vegetarianism. Or Sam Adams brew pubs.
Even love. There is only one piece by Eggers in Might's postmortem collection, Shiny Adidas Tracksuits and the Death of Camp: an essay titled "Never Fucked Anyone." It is worth quoting here for anyone who suspects that, at heart, this whole running commentary is cynical:
Every time a person has sex and afterward decides that he or she has "fucked" someone--there's that gap between the two things, it seems, between being with someone and having sex, and later naming it with that name--and every time that happens, when the choice has been made and that term applied, the act named "fuck," it seems to me that that's where, a little bit, the world crumbles.
Granted, this is but one piece in a collection that, on the whole, is uproariously caustic. (See, for example, Ted Rall's "College Is for Suckers" and Eric Westervelt's "The Glorious Climb of the Affluent Recreating Professional.") But although "Never Fucked Anyone" is almost impossibly plangent, it does not feel at all out of place. The phenomenon Eggers describes--the way "fuck" takes something beautiful and intimate and makes it crass and impersonal, our tendency to banalize everything--seems endemic to the culture as a whole.
Take MTV's Real World, the signature Gen-X-targeted product of a company that, in its ongoing transmogrification of rock music into big business, must be considered among the most successful institutions of commodified dissent in history. Every year, MTV rounds up seven twenty-something strangers through a nationwide cattle call, buys them a nice condo or renovated warehouse, and films them, constantly, for four months. We see the cast at all times of day, eating, drinking, dancing, and--quite often--fighting. Hence, it is the real world. Naturally, it is anything but. The carefully screened cast is, in all its improbable diversity, a focus-group fantasy: one black man and/or woman, one gay man or woman, one particularly attractive white woman, one person from a putatively noncosmopolitan background (a cadet from the Citadel, for instance, or a southerner, or a Canadian), someone with multiple tattoos and body piercings, and one ethnic-at-large (usually Asian or Hispanic). And the heavily edited "episodes" are no less a fiction than Friends, with dead time removed, inadvertent on-camera nudity blurred, and events fast-forwarded, rewound, and cut-and-pasted to suit the dramatic and comedic needs of, well, a television show. The Real World is Life, As Seen On TV. And though the image of twenty-somethings that The Real World conjures up is revolting--on the whole, the cast members are a remarkably narcissistic, selfish, uninquisitive, and stupid group--the show itself is immensely popular.
So of course Eggers auditions, the event of which forms the basis for a protracted "interview" in the middle of A.H.W.O.S.G.: "Interview," because, as Eggers quickly comes out and tells us, it isn't really a transcript of the audition interview, but "a device ... manufactured and fake," a "catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise." It is also where Eggers dissects the show itself and his/our fascination and disgust with it:
[W]e've grown up thinking of ourselves in relation to the political-media-entertainment ephemera, in our safe and comfortable homes, given the time to think about how we would fit into this or that band or TV show or movie, and how we would look doing it. These are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially impossible... . [It is] environmentally reinforced solipsism.
It's a nice move, picking the Real World audition as a moment to interrupt the flow of "real" memoir-time, and it reveals just how susceptible we are to the show's pretensions. "I am the common multiplier for 47 million!" he writes. "I am the perfect amalgam!" Not only is the solipsism instinctive--it is also, paradoxically, communal.
Eggers and the others don't spurn these kinds of big, fat, pop culture targets. But Eggers, in turning to memoir, has taken a somewhat bigger risk, pointing his rhetorical weapons at the most painful moments of his own--real--life. "Instead of lamenting the end of unmediated experience," he proclaims, "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." So there is a test to be met, both for Eggers and the broader project of cultural dissent of which he has been an integral part: Does all this knowingness, this filtering self-consciousness, actually work? Can the vernacular, via its ablest practitioners, allow us to navigate the riptides of mediated, echoed American life?
It is hard to say. There is an odor of despair toward the end of his book, when Eggers, having finally located his mother's ashes (after much avoiding and some searching), tries to dispose of them on a pier near his childhood home. It's revealing of his predicament--and perhaps ours--that he brings a notebook and tape recorder with him and that the first thing he thinks of on gripping the gold canister is ... the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark: "[B]ad things happened to the men who tinkered with the Ark, who disturbed its contents... . Jesus, I'm no fucking Nazi! But look at what I'm doing, with my tape recorder and notebook, and here at the beach, with this box--calculating, cold, manipulative, exploitive." Eggers is worried, rightly, that simply by wanting this moment to be beautiful, he strips it of authenticity and beauty both. "My poor mother," he agonizes. "She would do this without the thinking, without the thinking about the thinking."
This phrase--the thinking about the thinking--is perfect. It captures the danger of a more nihilistic kind of ironic consciousness, a thinking about the thinking that shuns the kind of engagement that Eggers and his contemporaries, as critics, writers, and journalists of a sort, are still willing to practice. Influence, moreover, is hard to come by nowadays. The same media fragmentation that has allowed Might, The Baffler, and Hermenaut room to flower also limits their reach; for the moment, the closest things we have to a common intellectual forum are sitcoms and advertising. And there is always the potential for co-optation: Suck.com, started by two employees of Wired, was bought by that magazine's Web site in 1998--though, so far, it is no less skewering.
And what of Eggers, now a best-selling author? McSweeney's is a bit more abstract and, well, literary than Might in its approach to dissent--its aim still true but more diffuse, buckshot versus armor-piercing rounds. Though heroic, A.H.W.O.S.G.'s core revelation may be simply its own Sisyphean struggle. The revolution has already been televised. But Eggers may be among our most promising reactionaries. ¤