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Dave Eggers has been widely recognized for his best-selling novelistic memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which recounts his experiences raising his eight-year-old brother while the author was in his early twenties. As the founder and editor of two humor and literary magazines, Might and McSweeney’s, Eggers has made a name for himself as the voice of his generation, espousing an irreverent brand of ironic, self-conscious, postmodern humor that speaks to the twenty-something youth culture of the 1990s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Life-Changing Event
Dave Eggers grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb not far from Chicago. His life changed dramatically during his senior year of college: he had been living at home to care for his mother, who was dying of stomach cancer, when his father suddenly and unexpectedly died of lung cancer. Less than five weeks later, his mother passed away. These deaths left Eggers and his three siblings orphans. Only one sibling, eight-year-old Christopher (nicknamed “Toph”), was still underage, and with the older brother and sister busy with their lives, Eggers took on the role of surrogate parent. Eggers’s older sister Beth later noted in interviews that Eggers’s book about these experiences downplays her role in helping to raise Christopher in order to exaggerate his responsibility as sole caretaker of their brother. She later recanted these claims.
In 1993, Eggers moved with Christopher from the family home in Illinois to San Francisco and Berkeley, California, where he pursued a career as a writer and editor and struggled through the daily challenges of parenting. Eggers held various odd jobs, including one for a geological-surveying company and another in the graphic-design department of the San Erancisco Chronicle. He also created the satirical magazine Might, serving as the periodical’s editor until it went out of business. Eggers then went on to work as an editor for Esquire magazine, but soon quit out of a distaste for the commercial publishing industry. In 1998 he founded McSweeney’s, a quarterly print and online literary journal devoted to literature, culture, and politics. Eggers was twenty-nine when A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first book, was published in 2000. It catapulted him to the status of a nationally recognized young writer whom critic William Georgiades referred to as the year’s ”wonder boy of American letters.”
Branching Out as a Writer and an Activist
Eggers again experienced family tragedy in 2001, when his sister Beth committed suicide with an overdose of antidepressants. Despite the emotional setback, Eggers published in the following year the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, which follows two childhood friends as they crisscross the world trying to get rid of $80,000. The book was published by McSweeney’s Books and made available for purchase only in independent bookstores and online via the McSweeney’s Web site. This work, bound in plain cardboard, displays the opening sentences of its story on the front cover, and demonstrates Eggers’s iconoclastic attitude toward publishing. In 2002 he also began editing an annual series entitled The Best American Nonrequired Reading, which collects notable short fiction, nonfiction, comics, screenplays, and other literary pieces. That same year, he founded 826 Valencia, a charity learning center for underprivileged youth located in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood of San Francisco called the Mission. Named for its street address, 826 Valencia provides reading tutors, SAT test-preparation courses, writing workshops, and college scholarships. It also houses McSweeney’s and the publishing company McSweeney’s Books. Since its founding, 826 Valencia has spawned a number of affiliated organizations, as well as other branches in cities across the United States.
In 2006 Eggers combined social activism with fiction writing in What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. The real-life hero of the novel, whose story Eggers recasts as a novel, is a refugee from the Sudan, one of the ”Lost Boys” who made their way from refugee camps to the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s. During the Sudanese Civil War, which raged for most of the 1980s and 1990s, young boys were separated from their families, many of whom were killed, when opposing factions systematically massacred entire villages. Thousands of young boys managed to escape and travel to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya; many of them were rescued from refugee camps and resettled in cities across the United States. Eggers’s retelling of Valentino’s story brought the Sudanese Civil War to the public consciousness in a different way, while detailing the often difficult and bewildering experience of the Lost Boys in their new homeland.
Eggers has been married to the novelist and editor Vendela Vida (born 1971) since the early 2000s. They have a daughter, October, born in 2005, and live in San Francisco, where both are involved with 826 Valencia and continue to write.
Works in Literary Context
Much of Eggers’s work sits on a blurry line between fiction and nonfiction. After the initial publication of his first book, the memoir A Heart breaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers admitted that he altered events to streamline the narrative. His third book, What Is the What, is part biography, part novel. Writing that is ostensibly nonfiction yet exhibits many self-consciously novelistic elements is often classified as creative nonfiction, a term that could be used to describe classic works such as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, as well as modern classics like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Although these works are based on real-life events, they are often constructed like works of fiction.
Literary writing that acknowledges and often mocks its own conventions is often described as ”postmodern.” On the first page of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers advises readers who are short on time to skip the table of contents and even to skip whole chapters. After a certain point, Eggers says, the book ”is kind of uneven.” Often conflated with irony, postmodernism is distinguished by a mistrust of grandiose claims of truth in religion, politics, and science. Indeed, in philosophy, the ”postmodern condition” is a term often used to describe a sort of contemporary nihilism or relativism. Eggers’s generation is not the first to be labeled ”postmodern.” The term has also been used to characterize such older writers as Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Works in Critical Context
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Critical response to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) generally hinges on whether or not a given reviewer acknowledges genuine emotion at the heart of Eggers’s story. Reviewers who found his ironic tone distancing and his overall narrative lacking in candid emotional expression offered negative assessments. Alexander Star, for example, observed that ”there is something disingenuous” about Eggers’s narrative voice, commenting, ”Eggers’s monologues are more like performance art than the dramatization of inner conflict.” Star added, ”The book displays a great deal of self-consciousness and very little self-reflection.” On the other hand, those who felt that Eggers succeeded in conveying honest feelings in the book offered high praise. Nicholas Confessore asserted that the work is not, as some critics argued, an expression of detached cynicism. ”On the contrary,” he stated, ”it is imbued with an almost desperate longing . . . to find some kind of irreducible truth in it all.” Other reviewers have remarked on the depth of humor in Eggers’s memoir, and have contended that the author’s greatest achievement lies in his ability to describe the emotional tenor of specific moments in his life, characterizing his debut work as an examination of empathy and grief. As commentator Marta Salij stated, Eggers ”knows where the heart of his story is,” adding, ”When he hits, as in the first passages on his mother’s death, he is sharp, strong, true and, yes, heartbreaking.”
You Shall Know Our Velocity and Later Works
You Shall Know Our Velocity (2003) was greeted with mixed commentary. As with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, critical discussion of You Shall Know Our Velocity has centered around questions of sincerity and irony, with scholars opining on the degree to which Eggers moved beyond the hip, irreverent tone of his memoir. Commentator Benjamin Markovits observed that You Shall Know Our Velocity, like Eggers’s first book, ”deals in the current generational anxieties of the American middle class.” Correspondingly, the book has been compared to the coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, and the cross-country odyssey On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, both of which were hailed as works expressing the anxieties of discontented middle-class youth. Lorraine Adams described Eggers’s second book as ”[a]n On the Road for the millennial generation,” while John de Falbe concluded that the characters in Eggers’s novel ”have neither the charm nor the subtlety of Holden Caufield, and the road is not as interesting as Kerouac’s.”
Reviewers have favorably compared What Is the What (2006) to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and have highlighted its epic scope and thought-provoking emotional resonance. They have also lauded the short-story collection How We Are Hungry, regarding it as a showcase for Eggers’s literary talents, which in this work, according to critic John Green, extend beyond ”the charming, smirky, self-conscious narrative voice that helped make A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius so popular.”
- Adams, Lorraine. ”The Write Stuff: From Cult to Culture, Dave Eggers and Co. Are Taking Their Idealism to the Streets.” American Prospect (February 2003).
- Confessore, Nicholas. ”Finite Jest.” American Prospect (June-July 2000).
- De Falbe, John. ”Round-the-World Spending Spree.” The Spectator (October 19, 2002).
- DeMott, Benjamin. ”Notes of a Son and Brother.” New York Review of Books (September 21, 2000).
- Georgiades, William. ”Ego Trip.” New Statesman (July 17, 2000).
- Green, John. Review of How We Are Hungry, by Dave Eggers. Booklist (December 15, 2004).
- Markovits, Benjamin. ”Novel of the Week.” New Statesman (February 24, 2003).
- Mattson, Kevin. ”Is Dave Eggers a Genius?: Rebelling and Writing in an Age of Postmodern Mass Culture.” Radical Society (October 2002).
- Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. ”The Rumpled Bed of Autobiography: Extravagant Lives, Extravagant Questions.” Biography (Winter 2001).
- Star, Alexander. ”Being and Knowingness.” The New Republic (August 14, 2000).
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