Here at the Meta Centre we’re not afraid to sometimes descend to High Art, Sharpie looked at a painting once, and I slept through an entire production of Mamma-Mia! As such, what with it being a new year and all, I considered my ridiculous fire-hazard of a book collection and thought I should probably read some of these. So, as well as the numerous, dubious reviews of computer games and films about rape that is the norm around here there may be a few highfalutin missives on books. There will be chin-stroking.
And Christ, I couldn’t think of a book more chin-strokingly literary than A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius if I tried, the title alone reduced me to clawing off my own mandible. As with everything else in pop-culture I am often slow on the uptake with novels, it took me 110 years to get round to reading Lord Jim, so A.H.W.o.S.G is already a decade old. The book, written by McSweeny’s editor and smarty-pants Dave Eggers, takes the form of a memoir describing the author’s struggles in raising his younger brother after both their parents succumb within weeks of each other to cancer. What makes A.H.W.o.S.G unique, and led the literati of the day into an absolute orgy of praise, is the book’s form. Eggers, being a smarty-pants, recognises the fundamental flaw of the medium he is using; how can one truly tell a true story with the manifold restraints of the written word? As such he eschews the general conventions of the memoir for a subjective, novelistic approach wherein narrative can suddenly jump forward, back, upside-down and into itself. Characters speaking to Eggers become Eggers himself commenting on the very use of those characters and you can practically feel the book itself nudging you and saying ‘did you see what I did there?’
It isn’t only in the bulk of the story itself that Eggers employs his literary fancies. The sharp-eyed reader may notice that, amongst the usual This paperback published in etc. that most people ignore, Eggers has included little easter-eggs; a scale out of 10 of Egger’s sexuality, for instance, and a subversion of the classic disclaimer: Any resemblance to persons living or otherwise.. Ho ho.
There then follows a lengthy discourse on the book itself, which includes such oddities as a guide to enjoying the book (which recommends that you skip the majority of it) and an acknowledgements section which lasts for roughly 30 pages and includes a description of the themes and a comparative list of symbols and their meanings that will appear in the book. Now, I’m one of those people who feels the compulsion to watch all the special features on a DVD, even the trailer to the movie that I’ve just seen. I suffer the same tendency with books (I actually feel slightly ripped off if there isn’t even an author biography, even when I can easily find one online that’s not the point) so I ignored the instruction to skip the preface, guessing that it would be integral to my enjoyment of the rest of the book. Yeah.
My problem is that after ten pages of reading Eggers bang on about ‘D) THE TELLING THE WORLD OF SUFFERING AS MEANS OF FLUSHING OR AT LEAST DILUTING THE PAIN ASPECT’ and the like I began to feel quite bored. I got the impression that Eggers was trying to take the piss, as if by finding the entire section tedious I simply didn’t ‘get it’, like I’m not high-minded enough to understand the, like, totally subversive use of the form to make a statement about the, y’know, written word, or some such. Well, Fuck You Eggers, if I was going to satirise the conventions of the medium I’d at least have the decency to make it fucking entertaining (incidentally I also found the lengthy sections dedicated to the whaling business in Moby Dick to be tedious as well, if for entirely different reasons). Anyway.
Anyway. I now have to somehow turn this into a positive review, because A.H.W.o.S.G is actually fantastic. Yes. Staggering and Heartbreaking in equal measures. It cannot be denied that Eggers is a fine writer, with a confident grasp and intimate knowledge of his trade. His photo-montage paragraphs of the San Franciscan landscape and lifestyle are resplendent enough to make you feel the sun beat on your face and his description of the icy Chicago winter enough to make you feel a genuine chill (although that may be due to the fact that it’s January in Salford, where even computers shiver). The book is also very funny, I particularly enjoy his worried visions as to what could happen to his little brother Toph if not adequately cared for, which mostly involve either violent death or crack-addiction. There is enough energy in here for
a thousand novels three pretty good novels. When it isn’t funny the book is deathly, crushingly sad, never letting you forget the horrible circumstances that led to the Eggers bros. situation.
And also, conversely, the main thrust of the book, the meat, is also pretty standard fare. Of course Eggers employs an entire plethora of literary tricks, but none of which we haven’t read many times before. It is the emotional resonance of the book that is its best feature, and it is lucky that Eggers’ well of fancy-pants writing techniques dries up well before the end, otherwise the last two chapters, for instance, wouldn’t feel half as fucking powerful. Jesus, I’m criticising art for trying to be experimental. What’s a matter with me? Best off you ignore all but the second to last paragraph of this review and well, just buy the book.