When I started this series, I did so with a list of fifteen favorite writers I included in response to a Facebook meme. Since I decided to dutifully track through them, my first dozen-plus entries were predetermined. I’ve now gone through every one of those, which makes this outing feel oddly momentous. I can go anywhere I want, highlight anyone I want. In a way, this feel like more of a statement, especially since I’m now liberated from the one arbitrary rule I set for myself on that initial list posted to Facebook: fiction writers only. Not writers who toiled exclusively on fiction–I’m a admirer of Jonathan Lethem’s essays, for example–but those whose fiction accounted for the major part of their impact on me. I bring this rule up because it actually prevented me from including at least one personally significant writer on the list. So, in a way, choosing the first writer to celebrate outside of outside of that first list isn’t actually that hard. If I’d been willing to sidestep my guideline, I would have included Dave Eggers from the beginning.
Much as I value Eggers’s writing, his pure fiction is the least impactful to me. I offer that with the caveat that I haven’t yet read his latest effort, A Hologram for the King, widely lauded when it was released last year. Similarly, what I have read of his novelization of his screenplay adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (so complicated!) is surprisingly wonderful. On the other hand, his first novel, 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity, was markedly lackluster, something Eggers almost seemed to know as he blew up and reconstructed his whole approach to writing afterward. Lest it seem as though I’m engaging in disparagement entirely in opposition to the purpose of this series, this actually speaks to the allure Eggers has for me. Unlike perhaps any other writer I regularly read and follow, Eggers triumphs most boldly when he’s at his most unconventional, subtly, wisely tweaking and twisting the rules in favor of his style and interests.
And another process-related notation, because this author seems to call for such things. As noted previously, the image selected for each entry corresponds, as best as I can achieve, with the first book I read from the writer in question, or at least the book that tipped them over into my personal pantheon, that made them one of my writers. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the 2000 elliptical memoir that made Eggers a sensation, was indeed the first book of his I’d read, but to have a more accurate representation of when the writer arrived on my radar, I’d be better off with a cover of Might magazine, the San Francisco-based periodical he started with a couple friends in the early nineteen-nineties. I’m not entirely sure how I heard about it in the first place–a Chicago Tribune article, maybe–but I bought the magazine obsessively, usually only getting my hands on it when I was able to go to Borders down in Madison. It was a remarkable mix of snark, irony and dead serious journalism, simultaneously embracing and deconstructing the mechanics of magazine writing in a manner that recalls David Letterman’s similar balancing act on Late Night, albeit with a little less irony. This was a magazine that could have a sharp, straightforward piece on a matter of grave geopolitical importance and title it “Throw Me the Idol, I Throw You the Whip, No Time to Argue.”
Similarly, I later haunted the magazine racks at the massive Madison Barnes & Noble, anxiously hoping to find new copies of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which Eggers developed after Might folded. Originally pitched–at least in the greater media–as a repository for articles by name writers that other periodicals had rejected, the publication rapidly took on a wildly unique life of its own, one that has only spawned more and greater experimentation over the years. I still harbor deep regrets over not investing in the lifetime subscription that was offered in early issues for only a couple hundred bucks, an offer that was later later withdrawn, initially temporarily, “while we do some math.” Besides the very good writing McSweeney’s contained, it also seemed (and seems) to be an expression of Eggers’s intellectual rambunctiousness, a love for the forms and possibilities of publishing, formatting itself as endlessly pliable as sentences and stories.
And that brings me back to A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius: dense, meandering, emotionally fraught and imbued with a boundless love of language. Tour de force cover it, but it also shortchanges the book. It is a life, a soul, a psyche laid bare, open to roughshod treatment. And many did meet the book with gruff responses, especially once it developed fervent fans, meaning it was time to engage the backlash. Its critics found the book to be indulgent. I thought it was thrilling and audacious, achieving a sort of anxious honesty by following thoughts through their loop-de-loop logic. It required attention, a commitment to its oblong rhythms. I don’t want every book to be so verbally cacophonous, but I’m damned glad this one is.
And I’m equally glad that Eggers doesn’t write that way all the time. Indeed, he actually writes that way rarely, even though he’ll never fully live the stylistic flourishes of Staggering Genius down, each new work stirring impressed remarks about the surprising leanness of the language. What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a largely nonfiction account of a Lost Boy Sudanese refugee presented as a novel, is magnificent, as is Zeitoun, the maddening story of a New Orleans resident who is arrested during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for the dual invented infraction of being there and being of Syrian descent. In these books, he deals with serious issues in a serious way, largely subsuming his perspective in favor of those of his protagonists, and yet maintaining his authorial voice. That may not match his reputation, but that’s what I see in his pages. And that’s a big part of the reason I keep going back to those pages.