Reviewed in Canada 🇨🇦 on May 2, 2000
If this novel were a t-shirt, it would read MY PARENTS DIED SLOW HORRIBLE DEATHS AND ALL I GOT WAS A HUNDRED PAGES. Eggers' book, stripped of its elaborate prefatory flourishes, is a brief, formulaic parents'-death memoir--the most venerable and formulaic genre of the American literary workshop. For generations, American workshop writers have exploited the deaths of their fathers, mothers, dogs, cats, rats, parrots, imaginary siblings and falsified grandparents for literary gain. Dave Eggers, who admits that he was submitting short stories about his mother's death before her body wa s cold, is only the latest in a long line of desperate ambition-machines who have sold their relatives' bodies to the meat-processors of art. Why, then, has his parents'-death story been so successful?
Eggers' strategy is simple, but effective: instead of hiding his crime, he flaunts it, even as he hopes to keep the tears flowing. It's quite a performance, in its way: rather like going for both the low and high hand in a game of poker. For example, Eggers spends twenty pages squeezing tears from the reader over the accident which befell his friend Shalini, then admits that he hardly knew her. In the same way, after spending a hundred pages telling that cliche of cliches, that Everest of workshop drivel, the "Mom's Slow Death by Cancer" narrative, he admits that he began submitting short stories about his mom's death before her body was cold.
For Eggers, literary success is the result of a very simple arithmetic: one corpse equals one chapter. Two corpses--his mom and dad, who die with all violins playing in the first hundred pages of the book--provide the momentum to get the "novel" underway.
These first hundred pages work pretty well, in a workshoppy way, milking the parents' deaths for every little droplet. After that,only Dave's little brother Toph is left as pathos-device Toph's vulnerability and Dave's tender conscience have to carry the load, and the dropoff is so stark it makes the Marianas Trench look like a handicapped ramp. Wile E. Coyote has fallen off cliffs which didn't drop off this dramatically.
Caring for one's little brother, which anyone from a less self-centred culture would do happily, becomes for Dave a terrible martyrdom, because it distracts him from his true duty as a young American: the pursuit of celebrity by any means necessary. The reader is supposed to find his concern for his little brother heroic. The implications about American culture are horrifying, above all because, based on readers' comments on Amazon, American readers really do accept caring for a brother as a deeply noble act, rather than a given.
As Dave admits in his Preface, "The book thereafter is sort of uneven," since it covers "...the lives of people in their early twenties, [whose] lives are very difficult to make interesting..." Yeah, you can see his predicament. Who ever heard of a good novel about the lives of people in their twenties? Talk about barren ground!
Dave does his best with this thankless material, always depending on ol' Toph to keep the audience reaching for their hankies every time his tales of upper-middle-class careerist banality become "difficult to make interesting." If you had to make a t-shirt out of the latter three-quarters of the novel, it would be worn by Dave, with one of those arrows pointing toward Toph, and reading I'M TAKING CARE OF STUPID, ALL BY MYSELF, or perhaps, HE AIN'T HEAVY, HE'S MY TICKET TO FAME!
When Dave can bring his dying parents on stage, he's a passable writer; once they're gone, we're left with nothing but his stunningly banal, depressing search for literary fame at any price. To this end, Dave and his midwestern preppie friends. start a magazine, giving it the coy name "Might." There's no better way to convey the flatness of the enterprise than to quote the manifesto published in its first issue:
"Could there really be more to a generation than illiterate, uninspired, flannel-wearing 'slackers'? Could a bunch of people under twenty-five put out a national magazine with no corporate backing [note: as Dave unwisely confesses elsewhere, his mag was started by dipping into his inheritance; thus his career is founded quite literally on his parents' deaths, just like his narrative.] and no clue about marketing? With actual views about actual issues? With a sense of purpose and a sense of humor? With guts and goals and hope? Who would read a magazine like that? You might."
Then again, you might not, especially if you don't want a horrifying glimpse into the beige souls of Dave and his friends, who have no emotions other than a protozoan crawl toward fame at any price.
And it's worked for him. That's the scariest part. In Dave's culture, that settles it: you can't argue with success, as the vultures say.