The following article by Daniel Handler has nothing to do with A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Published February 2000
OK, the thing you should know about Dave Eggers's book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is that it's not. Well, maybe it is. It has lots of really good parts, which is one of the earmarks of genius, right? I guess it depends on what sort of person you are. Are you one of those people who think there've only been a handful of geniuses throughout history? Or do you frequently find yourself in the presence of several geniuses, all at the same bar?
If you are of the latter sort, using the word "genius" in a handy, self-conscious, semi-ironic, all-encompassing yet detached way endemic to, well, "Generation X," a handy, self-conscious, etc., term for a group of people who use the word "genius" to emphasize the fragmentary nature of modern culture and the sad truth that "real" geniuses are invariably lame in some basic way, if you are the sort of person who believes in the genius of Sandra Bernhard, the genius of Stereolab, the genius of your friend in film school who hasn't even graduated yet, then perhaps you were a fan of Might magazine, Eggers's previous heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Might was a satirical magazine that didn't last very long but was lots of fun when it did. It was way funnier than Spy, and smarter, angrier. It had a romantic streak, a belief that the world's wrongs were determinable, a naive belief that knew it was naive, and so stayed afloat through its own self-reference. Sometimes the jokes fell flat, but Might's personality never faltered. It folded, of course, and its ghost hovers over Eggers's more recent creation, a more slippery, quasi-literary thing called McSweeney's.
The book has this giddy romantic streak all over it, along with the paralysis of acute self-consciousness that ought to cripple a memoir but liberates Eggers's. Before you can even whine that another X-aged whippersnapper has written a memoir for God's sake, Eggers raises this very issue in his introduction, along with the is-it-all-really-true issue, the but-surely-you-made-up-the-dialogue issue, and the how-much-did-they-pay-for-this issue, along with the following recommendation: "The first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with . . . the book thereafter is kind of uneven." You're also encouraged to skip the entire introduction, because Eggers realizes just how lame a goofy, gag-laden introduction to a Gen-X memoir can be. Thus, before the book really begins, he's done a sort of one-two punch of dismissiveness and defensiveness to any critics. As with an indie-rock singer mumbling his lyrics into the microphone because they suck, there's a sort of strategical genius going on here.
The heartbreaking part is much easier to quantify. While Eggers was in college, his parents died, five weeks apart. His father died first, but his mother was dying first, and the father just sort of beat her to it. One minute he was smoking in the intensive care ward and the next minute he got to have the first, and better-attended, funeral. As soon as the will comes through, Eggers finds himself saddled with the burden of raising his little brother, along with the burdens of grief, financial responsibility, ambition, cynicism, and an on-again, off-again relationship that flickers like a strobe. A typical memoir would weep over all this, of course, copiously and with plenty of italics, and a lesser memoir would laugh with brash defiance, pat itself on the back for shocking us so, and scamper off with a few paragraphs of how cathartic laughter can be. But Eggers finds the truth here, permitting himself neither defiance nor epiphany in the loopy horror of his situation. Whether he's discussing early Might meetings or parent-teacher conferences, he invariably finds a perfect tone, and zeroes in on the triple paradox of our slacker days: You want to do something, preferably the right thing, but are paralyzed by self-awareness; despite self-awareness you do something anyway. "Oh this is so plain, disgraceful, pathetic," he cries when a sea breeze spoils his ash-scattering ritual and forces the dismal slapstick of brushing his mother out of his clothes. "Or beautiful and loving and glorious! Yes, beautiful and loving and glorious!"
And it is. There's a restless energy all over this book, from the sun-soaked joy of a brother-to-brother Frisbee game on the beach to the lonely ache of attending an elementary school open house in the hopes of getting laid, and even when the roller coasting gets as exhausting to read as it must have been to live through, one has to admire Eggers's wide-eyed vigor, and find it, yes, beautiful and loving and glorious, despite everything. When something is beautiful and loving and glorious despite everything, however, one is obliged to mention the everything. Eggers has warned us, back in the introduction, about the uneven parts, but the fact remains that they are still there. So in keeping with the spirit of the book, I will say that you will probably not want to bother with the remaining two paragraphs of this review. The first will contain some critical statements, in order to preserve my own integrity as a book critic, statements that I hope won't be so unfair that Mr. Eggers will repeat them to me, with stinging malice, should we ever meet in person. And the second will give a positive summation of the book, with easily quotable sentences, because there's no point in getting a book reviewed in the VLS if the publisher can't find a quote to use in their publicity.
Optional Paragraph #1: Eggers portrays the insularity of his group of friends with his usual keen accuracy, but this means that reading about his complicated entanglements brings on the same fidgety impatience and queasy ennui you experience when you're entangled yourself. These aren't the best emotions to evoke in a reader, but more important, this is exactly the sort of chronicling that bloats the average Gen-X memoir. In these drearier sections, Eggers's stylistic tics--unbelievably long sentences, faux-scientific charts, mock first-person-plural manifestos, and the like--start to look less like inventive flourishes and more like fervent attempts to keep our attention. And while we're on the subject, he could keep our attention with a bit more background on some of the nonfamily events. Even an avid fan of Might will have trouble recalling the specific cover stories Eggers mentions in passing, and those less familiar with the magazine will find the Might-y chapters one long, uninvolving blur. Also, our hero had a guest appearance on MTV's The Real World, and is admirably determined not to turn this into either a name-droppy chat piece or a tired diatribe against the straw horse of ultrapopular culture. But if Eggers isn't going to give us Puck gossip or get especially catty about executive producers, you wonder why he brought up the matter in the first place.
Optional Paragraph #2: Dave Eggers's memoir is a keen mix of self-consciousness and hope, of horror and hysteria and of freshness and wisdom. It's a tonic for anyone who's felt their life becoming a TV Movie of the Week and found themselves torn between laughter, tears, and a nagging urge to change the channel. By eschewing (Simon & Schuster, you can quote me as saying "avoiding" if you'd rather) the temptations of cynicism, slackerdom, and navel-gazing, Eggers may end up becoming something he richly deserves and probably does not aspire to be: the voice of a generation.
Daniel Handler's second novel, Watch Your Mouth, will be published this spring.