Laughing Through His Tearjerker

What do you do if the prepublication buzz on your first book is so frenzied that The New Yorker has bought an excerpt, editors at Time are clamoring for your services, and the New York Times needs a photo to accompany the piece they’ve assigned? If your hero, David Foster Wallace, has provided a back-cover blurb so effusive it’s almost embarrassing? If the book in question is a memoir in which you spill family secrets so sad and self-revelations so awful that you sometimes wish you never wrote it? If you’re Dave Eggers, you get on the next plane to Reykjavík.

“I’m not looking forward to being around for this,” Eggers insists, scrambling around his Park Slope apartment to get ready for the flight that night. The duplex, which he shares with his teenage brother, is decorated in the vintage Dorm Gothic style, and every available surface is buried beneath rippling waves of magazines, CDs, videocassettes, unopened mail, mismatched sneakers, a Frisbee, and back issues of McSweeney’s, the limited-circulation literary journal Eggers founded in 1998. The book, modestly titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, hits stores next week, and “the only reason I’m even going to be in the country,” says Eggers, flopping onto the couch in the living room, which doubles as office space for McSweeney’s, “is because of the readings the publisher scheduled. I would much rather just come back a few months afterward.”

Just like the book – a heart-wrenching yet often very funny memoir about raising his 8-year-old brother after both of their parents died of cancer within five weeks of each other – Eggers is hard to take at face value. One minute he’s a shy guy from the Midwest who says “Gee whiz” and hurries over to remove a glass you just put down on a side table that belonged to his parents. The next he’s a world-weary New York media insider – a former Esquire editor and ESPN consultant and a familiar voice on the NPR show “This American Life” – who’s been scheduling interviews and promotions for the book with the skill of an air-traffic controller lining up approaches to Kennedy. Indeed, the main reason for his trip to Iceland isn’t to escape his impending celebrity – although on one level he seems sincere about that. It’s to supervise the printing of the fourth issue of McSweeney’s, which he hopes will be ready when his national book tour begins next month. That way he can get twice the promotional bang for Simon & Schuster’s buck.

Not yet 30, Dave Eggers is already shaping up as the Andy Kaufman of New York letters. “I don’t want anyone to read it,” he says of his book. Sure, he doesn’t. He has a handsome Irish face – the kind you expect to see in a Bowery Boys film from the thirties – and when it crinkles up into his devilish smile, you know he’s pulling your leg, but you’re not sure why.

“The goal was to make it painfully honest. To make it hurt me. Again and again I tried to make it so that I looked as bad as I could.”

Eggers has long been known for this kind of self-conscious dance between earnestness and irony, especially among the New York writers and editors who are pushing 30 and creeping up mastheads. “Nothing just happens with him,” says one magazine insider. “He thinks about everything and plans it. All his self-critiques are part of that.” Six years ago, when he was 23 and living in San Francisco, he and some high-school friends founded Might, an often funny, sometimes annoyingly precious magazine aimed, with some misgivings, at Generation X. Influenced by Spy magazine, early Letterman, and This Is Spinal Tap, Might got a lot of attention for stunts like putting an advertisement on the cover (in the MIGHT SELLS OUT issue) and running a made-up story about the death of former child actor Adam Rich. “We were really desperately idealistic about a lot of things,” Eggers says. “You get out of school and you just absolutely do not expect anything but your thoughts instantly implanted into the brains of everyone on the planet. The anger that we had, that came through in a sort of sarcasm, was all born of frustration.” It got Eggers and his colleagues noticed (“None of us minded seeing our names in the papers, but we were sort of knowing about it”), and when the magazine imploded, nearly all of them moved to New York and into positions at national magazines.

After he moved, Eggers alternated between playing the major-magazine game and biting the hand that fed him. While at Esquire, he founded the resolutely uncommercial McSweeney’s, and after leaving the men’s glossy, he posted a snarky piece about his days there on the McSweeney’s Website. (In the parody, which earned Eggers a mention on “Page Six,” Esquire is thinly disguised as Man: The Magazine for Men, with headlines like LAETITIA CASTA: ARE THOSE TITS TALKING TO US?) Around the same time, he was selling Simon & Schuster on a book about his own family story – potentially the same kind of exploitation of personal tragedy he had excoriated in a Might article about Kurt Cobain’s death that began, “Courtney Love makes us sick.”

Eggers seems like an easy target – and he has justifiable worries that critics may be gunning for him. But readers who open A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (or A.H.W.O.S.G., as Eggers likes to call it) expecting shallow sensationalism or easy irony are in for a surprise. For years, he had been telling friends the story: In 1991, when he was 21 and his family lived in Lake Forest, Illinois (the town where Ordinary People was filmed), both his parents died, leaving Eggers to raise his 8-year-old brother, Toph. The two boys moved to California, where their older brother and sister lived, and while Eggers was living the life of a cool young bohemian in San Francisco – founding a magazine, going to parties, trying to get laid – he was also leading a not-so-secret double life as a single mom raising a son in Berkeley. When it came time to write the story, Eggers resolved to hold nothing back – including his mother’s painful death, his ill-advised plan to guilt-trip the producers of MTV’s Real World into casting him for the San Francisco season, and his pathetic attempt to meet women at Toph’s parent-teacher night.

Eggers lays everything out in exquisite, excruciating detail, but he wants to have his tearjerker and deconstruct it, too. All too aware of how cheesy it is to milk his tragedy in a memoir, he wraps A.H.W.O.S.G. in the same kind of ironic footnotes and snarky asides that make Might and McSweeney’s so interesting. There’s a page of “rules and suggestions for the enjoyment of this book.” A lengthy preface contains passages cut from the final text. There are cute little floor plans of the house in Berkeley, jokey menus of the dinners he and his brother cooked, and more than twenty pages of small-print “acknowledgments” that include a detailed analysis of the 21 themes of the book (“the painfully, endlessly self-conscious book aspect,” “the memoir as act of self-destruction aspect”), a chart of all its themes, a balance sheet showing the costs he incurred against the $100,000 advance he received from Simon & Schuster, an “incomplete guide to symbols and metaphor,” and several peculiar mail-order offers, including one to send $5 to the first 200 readers who mail him proof that they have read and thoroughly understood the book. As with McSweeney’s, some of the best parts of A.H.W.O.S.G. are in the fine print, literally; they exist on the margins, where Eggers seems to feel most at home. (“Does there seem to be more meaning in these asides, footnotes, marginalia?” he writes in an unsigned footnote in McSweeney’s. “Could it be that a group of writers, of a certain … age, feels more comfortable here, in the crevices, speaking their minds in these small, almost hidden ways, afraid to simply say things in plain language and bold type?”) This is David Foster Wallace territory, and Wallace himself says Eggers’s digressions are “smart and self-conscious without being cold.”

“If I had to do it over again,” Eggers says, “the book might all be that sort of thing,” and he continues to push his typographical and aesthetic obsessions to the limit in McSweeney’s. The next issue, for example, is over 350 pages long and features more color and printing tricks than the last ones. It will cost $22. “We’ll keep upping the ante,” he says of future issues. “Whether doing them in hardcover, or putting in every bell or whistle we can: die cuts, vellum, different paper stocks. That stuff interests me just as much as – sometimes even more than – the words on the page.”

Still, he admits with A.H.W.O.S.G., “the material did sort of overwhelm the gimmickry” – especially at the end when he returns to Chicago and unexpectedly finds his mother’s ashes. His tone changes the moment he starts describing how he carried a small notebook with him while he spread her ashes over Lake Michigan, the better to jot down any poignant thoughts he might use later. “My poor mother,” he writes. “She would do this without thinking, without the thinking about thinking …”

Asked about it now, he isn’t the least bit defensive about taking notes for the book, even then. “Obviously, I think about this stuff,” he says slowly. “But to ignore the notebook, to pretend like it wasn’t there – that’s not entirely honest. And the goal was to make it painfully honest. To make it hurt me. Again and again I tried to make it so that I looked as bad as I could, as I was. Anytime I felt like I was looking good, I had to undermine that and tell the complete thing.”

In the final pages, during an inspired rant triggered by a perfect moment on a California beach, tossing a Frisbee with Toph, the cripplingly self-conscious voice that has carried him through 300-plus pages finally gives way to a startling explosion of anger and grief. And he finally describes the scene he’s been holding back for the whole book: his mother’s final breaths.

Whether he likes it or not, Eggers has written the kind of book he swears he never wanted to write: a hip tearjerker. It’s Angela’s Ashes meets On the Road.

I want to meet Toph, now 16 and in high school, but the brothers won’t allow it. After spilling all of his family’s secrets, Eggers is ready for a little privacy. “You think you want people to know that stuff, and then after you’ve written it, you go, ‘Oh, fuck – I don’t really want anyone to know any of that stuff,’ ” he says. “In a way, it’s sort of like a letter you write that you should have waited before you sent it.”

The plane to Reykjavík is leaving in a few hours, but Eggers is still nowhere near ready. The last time he was there, over the summer, Toph went with him after reading the completed book for the first time. They hiked through a valley outside Reykjavík that is filled with thermal geysers. “We talked about it endlessly,” Eggers says vaguely. “He likes the book more than I do.” (Toph’s only direct comment is in the preface: “Ooh, look at me, I’m Dave, I’m writing a book! With all my thoughts in it! La la la!”)

As for what everyone else will think, Eggers is pretty sure he won’t be invited on Oprah. He thinks all the postmodern reflexiveness will keep unwanted readers away. “I don’t like the idea of it being a popular book; I think it would creep me out,” he says. “Nobody likes the self-conscious stuff too much. I don’t think the average Angela’s Ashes reader will take to this. And the word motherfucker appears like 60 or 70 times.”

Tucked into one corner of the living room, there’s a small shrine to the Eggers and McSweeney (his mother’s maiden name) families – just a few old photos and framed documents. And Eggers has no plans to write another memoir. “Never again,” he says sharply. “It’s one of those things where you completely get it out of your system and that’s it.” Now he’s working on a novel written in the third person, with a woman as the main character. “I’ve gotten all that self-consciousness out of my system,” he says. “Also, you get tired of using the word I. At least, I do.”

Laughing Through His Tearjerker