IT'S HARD TO reject shamelessness in a literary work: arrogance, self-righteousness, self-pity, etc. Love me with all my flaws, the shameless author begs. Philip Roth has built a career around this shtick with works like Portnoy's Complaint and The Counterlife, preempting critics' strikes by acknowledging his ingratiating gestures as an author. In his ironically titled memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers borrows from Roth's palette, compulsively and cheekily apologizing for the upcoming flaws of his book, while neglecting to remove them from the ensuing text. The memoir relates how, when he was a 21-year-old college senior, Eggers lost both his parents to cancer in the space of a month and inherited his 8-year-old brother Toph. In beautiful and lyrical prose, Eggers brings us right into this event, chronicling the life he shared with Toph as not-so-footloose, slaphappy bachelors in Berkeley, California. Yet Eggers's anxiety over his motives for writing this memoir claim center stage, turning his book into a postmodern, three-ring circus of the ego.
The show starts early, with small-print riffs in the fine print of the book's copyright page. There, Eggers plots his sexual identity on a ten-point scale, notes that his publisher is wealthier than all of Central America, and undercuts the authority of the memoir form by apologizing for the liberties he has taken in retelling events. There are other mildly amusing tricks: a "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoying This Book," a flow-chart of the effect his parents' death had on him, and a five-dollar rebate offer for readers mailing in pictures of themselves alongside the book. Just when we've had enough funny business, he gets down to telling the story.
These initial 100 pages, where we read in the penumbra of his joking, are the memoir's best. After the deaths, during which his parents' "cremains" are misplaced, the Eggers brothers move to Berkeley, where Dave tries awkwardly to fulfill mother and father roles. Toph plays along, and according to Eggers, "wants to be the ideal, new model kid as much as I want to be the ideal, new model parent." They eat cereal straight from the box and live like filthy bachelors. At night Eggers reads Toph books like Maus, Catch-22, and Hiroshima, leaving out the roughest parts. As Toph adjusts to California, Eggers gets his bearings, and he soon begins work on the magazine Might.
And then something changes. Toph breaks out of character and begins addressing Eggers as an author, pointing out how he unfairly condenses events, and how badly Eggers seems to want to "take that terrible winter and write with it what you want to be some heartbreaking thing." As his book moves forward, Eggers begins playing this metafictional wild card whenever he feels himself to be on shaky ground. A botched-suicide victim complains of how his tragedy is used as a thematic counterpoint to Eggers's life; an interviewer comments on the convenience of her appearance in the plot. In theory, these narrative excursions make astute commentary on the memoir form--that too often it is really just an act of self-vindication and solipsism. But in the end, these devices, coupled with the increasingly tedious interlude about how Eggers founds Might, tries over and over to get laid, and has a near miss with MTV's The Real World, smack of self-congratulation. After having the chair pulled out from under him for 400 pages, the reader finally hits the floor.