Velocity Boy: On the Life and Times of Dave Eggers

02/28/2007 12:00 AM |

Seven years ago this month a 16-year-old California high school student named Gary Baum started a website devoted to documenting the frenzy just then beginning to engulf the burgeoning literary success known as Dave Eggers. He called it the “FoE! Log” — “FoE” being his term for a “Friend of Eggers” — and in its pages he set out to catalogue every instance, however insignificant, of what he termed “Eggersiana.” The Log opened for business on February 21, 2000 with an excerpt of a New York Observer piece by the paper’s then media columnist Gabriel Snyder detailing Eggers’ recent rise to prominence. It shut down about a year-and-a-half later, Baum’s closing post noting a passing reference to The Dave in a Detour magazine editor’s letter.

In between, the site issued a steady efflux of all things Eggers — critical roundups, reports from readings, updates on the writer’s ever-shifting “enemies list.” Over 17 months, Baum dissected, among other things, the courtship of Vendela Vida, the ascension of Neal Pollack, the relative levels of prestige accorded the various parts of the McSweeney’s website (the magazine’s letters section, it would seem, is where hipster-lit pretension goes to die). It’s all still online (aphrodigitaliac.com/mm, for the curious among you), and as gently faded collections of media ephemera go, it’s pretty spectacular. Nostalgia abounds. Long-broken links to sites like Suck and Feed; John Hodgman — Mac spots not yet even a glint in his eye — popping up at McSweeney’s readings as a second-string FoE; Zadie Smith in the first flushes of fame; a Jedediah Purdy reference; Salon.com, solvent and happy. At the center of it all is, of course, Eggers — launching imprints, issuing manifestos, settling scores — the ringmaster of his own decreasingly ramshackle traveling circus; omnipresent by design. And scrolling through the archives of Baum’s site, a person is reminded of one obvious but generally unremarked fact — for all the acclaim his first work brought his way, Eggers has always been a far more accomplished impresario than author.

Until the recent publication of his latest book, What Is the What (of which more later), Eggers’ output as a writer consisted essentially of one very fine memoir, a considerably less fine first novel, and a wildly uneven collection of short stories. It’s by no means a resumé to be ashamed of, but all the same, it’s not exactly the sort of oeuvre that would automatically place a person at the white-hot center of American letters. Eggers’ oeuvre isn’t the thing, though — it’s all the other stuff. The magazines — Might, McSweeney’s, The Believer {fig. 2}, Esquire (for a brief, acrimonious stint); the friends — Lethem, Moody, Hornby, Smith et al; the performances, the pranks, the reading series; the ever-expanding charitable venture 826 Valencia {fig. 3}. Since officially making the scene, Eggers has emerged as the Kevin Bacon of a certain set of young literati. He’s the nexus, the hub, the center of the web, the straw, as it were, that stirs the drink.

And to be honest, it’s all seemed like pretty good times. There’s an aggressive whimsy to the Eggers enterprise that, provided you haven’t preemptively hardened your heart, can’t help but charm. Convincing a child sitcom star to fake his own death for a magazine article? {fig. 4} Fun. Chartering a bus to carry the crowd from a bookstore reading to a bar? Even more fun. Imploring the attendees of another reading to show up dressed in bear suits? Perhaps even more fun. Having your Park Slope tutoring center double as a super-hero supply store? Hopelessly twee, true, but still fun. There has always been with Eggers an air of novelty, the sense that, while the publishing industry came ready with all manner of well-established conventions, few of them were particularly necessary or worthwhile, and for his part he’d just as soon mix things up a bit, thank you very much. Literature was a lovely thing, but it wasn’t sacrosanct, and the trappings that typically came with it were more than fair game.

And so we got drawings of staplers and short stories on book spines, journals disguised as junk mail {fig. 5} and touring writers raising hell in public restrooms across the country. It was a carnival. It’s still a carnival. Bright lights, shiny baubles, wild rides. Buy a ticket. Take a tour. What sort of stick-in-the-mud wouldn’t?

It was this whimsy, this sense of fun, that made A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius {fig. 1} such a striking debut. Much was made of the book’s postmodern flair, but more appealing than Eggers’ metafictional (meta-nonfictional?) gambits was the manner in which he introduced them — humorous, breezy, nonchalant. It’s not like these were new ideas — the self-consciousness inherent in memoir writing, the cribs and compromises involved in translating life to the page, the mix of ego and shame attendant to the enterprise. No one was being let in on any big secrets here. The tone, though, delighted. Wry, self-aware, amused and amusing, Eggers opened a hole in the fourth wall and strolled casually through. Easy, entertaining, utterly readable — it was the sort of thing John Barth might have written had he been an editor at New York Magazine.

In retrospect, these seem the weakest parts of the book. The financial statements, the flow-charts, the rebate offers, the readers’ guide — it all feels like little more than an extended bout of belle-lettrist throat clearing. A page or two of the stuff is fine, but after that, one starts to wish he’d get on with it. That Eggers’ voice in these passages has been so relentlessly aped doesn’t much help matters either. A style that once seemed, if not radical, then at least something fresh, has since been co-opted by the entire twenty-something population of Brooklyn. This is, of course, quite an accomplishment in itself, but the ubiquity of the trick becomes somewhat off-putting. More problematic, perhaps, than Eggers’ legions of eager imitators, though, is the fact that the more one looks, the more one starts to suspect there’s not all that much difference between the ersatz versions and the real thing.

Much of A Heartbreaking Work  remains splendid, though. The quiet, solemn opening — trees scratching at the winter sky while streams of exhaust from the drying machine leave the house where his parents are dying. The moment on the jetty in the lake in the cold with the cardboard box of his mother’s ashes. Eggers and Toph in their car coursing down Highway 1, a red speck seen from above, the moment’s freedom, possibility made almost palpable. The book’s angry, joyous, profane close — the sentences chasing sentences, the lovely echoes of Molly Bloom; speed, power, momentum building, words piling upon words, a blind, frenzied race towards some vaguely intuited release. This is all undeniably great stuff, and Eggers is an undeniably talented writer.

Looking from the outside in, though, it’s never been clear just how much he actually wants to be a writer. He has written books; he no doubt will write more books; he may very well, for all I know, be writing a book even now. A person can easily imagine him, though, giving it all up if some more interesting endeavor came along. He’s an author in the same the way that Bono is a pop star. One writes and one sings, but they’re both pretty intent on keeping quite a few other balls in the air as well. There is the sense that fictional worlds are somewhat less fundamental to Eggers than they might be to another writer. He’s so busy, after all, plying his designs on the real one.

It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that Eggers’ most successful work to date, the aforementioned biographical novel What Is the What is, like AHWOSG, firmly tethered to the actual. For all his imagination, Eggers struggles when set to free-float as a fabulist. In 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity {fig. 6} — his lone long-form work of fiction thus far — Eggers seemed somehow adrift. The writing was, in stretches, as sharp as ever, and there were a number of fine set pieces throughout, but he was never quite able to bring it all together. Instead of building one upon the other, combining to tease out resonances, responses, the book’s episodes remained disconnected, inert. He’d carved out the parts, but the world as a whole remained murky.

In his short stories, too, Eggers is best when working as a realist. “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”, the finest piece in his 2004 collection How We Are Hungry {fig. 7}, is a carefully crafted, cautiously narrated tale of an excursion up Kilimanjaro. Perfectly conventional, it borders in parts on being almost simply a sort of reportage. But it’s far and away the most effective story in the book. So too with What Is the What {fig. 8}. Stylistically, structurally speaking, this novel based on the life of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng is the simplest, most straightforward thing Eggers has ever done. It’s also the best. Told in a beautifully spare, modest voice, the book follows Deng from his village in southern Sudan, through his travels fleeing murahaleen militias into Ethiopia, then to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp and finally to the United States and Atlanta. By turns nightmarish, idyllic, tender, despairing, the novel has received lusty huzzahs from virtually all corners. And rightly so. It’s a remarkable story, and on Eggers’ part a remarkably sensitive work of reporting and re-imagining.

One can only imagine, though, what he might have done with the book had he gone at it several years earlier. The relationship between the impoverished African refugee and the famous American author who’s taken up the telling of his story hardly needs to be, as they say, “problematized.” It’s already plenty problematic. And given his history of muddying the narratorial waters, it’s hard to believe that the Eggers of AHWOSG wouldn’t have had something to say about it all.

This Eggers though — at least if outward appearances are any indication — simply decided to assume that his own motives were reasonably pure and just got on with writing the thing. And instead of seven separate prefaces and a 28-page footnote questioning to what extent and in precisely what ways the enterprise was a potentially exploitative one (to be fair, a pair of perfectly valid inquiries that someone probably ought to get around to making sometime) something far lovelier, far more interesting emerged.

Midway through the story, as Deng travels across the desert towards Ethiopia, he becomes lost and finds himself at a mysterious desert-dweller’s subterranean home. The man gives him water and oranges and hides him briefly underground. Before Deng leaves, the man turns to him and tells him, “I live because I do not exist… no one can kill the man who’s not there.” The reference seems plain — we’ve come across Ellison’s Invisible Man. The hidden hole, the hidden life, the American tale transplanted, transcribed — given new meaning in Africa. It’s a different hole, a different man, but the echoes are there, and they resonate throughout — complicating, enriching. This is the great joy of the novel — the author as he informs his narrator, the narrator as he informs his author, the connections, congruence, sympathies — conscious and not — made immediate and real. Ellison is just one example, but one senses everywhere the influence of Eggers’ experience on Deng’s story, and Deng’s presence, of course, ever-affecting Eggers’ choices on the page. One inhabits the other, and we’re given the chance, albeit briefly and tentatively, to inhabit them both.

In the years since his first great success, Eggers has, on an almost biweekly basis, been anointed the “voice of his generation.” Admittedly, there is something at least slightly ridiculous about the phrase. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to this latest work — the tale of lives so seemingly removed from Eggers’ and our own — that the title has never felt more accurate. It’s the sort of book one always suspected Eggers could write but was never sure he would. Now he has. So long as he’s in the business, hopefully he’ll find time to write a few more.