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Dave Eggers’ Staggering Genius

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers was heartbreaking, I suppose. It’s terrible that mere et pere Eggers died within a short time of each other leaving young Dave to raise his even younger brother Topher. But you know what?—and I don’t think saying this can be considered a spoiler—it has a happy ending. AHWOSG is almost inspirational, with its orphan-makes-good conclusion. Eggers goes on to become a rich and famous author/dot-commer. So the hearbreak doesn’t last. It’s only awful in a Mighty Mighty Bosstones “The Impression That I Get” middle class sort of way:

“I’m not a coward,
I’ve just never been tested
I’d like to think that if I was,
I would pass
Look at the tested and think there but for the grace go I
I might be a coward,
I’m afraid of what I might find out
I’ve never had to knock on wood
But I know someone who has
Which makes me wonder if I could
It makes me wonder if
I’ve never had to knock on wood
And I’m glad I haven’t yet
Because I’m sure it isn’t good
That’s the impression that I get.”

So it’s not heartbreaking, and frankly there isn’t much genius, staggering or otherwise. Unless you’re talking about Eggers’s amazing marketing prowess.

So while I was not very impressed with AHWOSG, I was with Eggers’s new work of fiction You Shall Know Our Velocity. Will, Hand, and Jack were inseperable childhood friends. One day Jack died in a freak car accident. Will inherits over twenty thousand dollars and he can’t bear to keep it. He and Hand take a weeklong trip around the world trying to give away the money to poor people, but they discover that their altriustic impulses are easier discussed than implemented.

Some books are plot driven, others, character driven. YSKOV can almost be said to be emotionally driven. It’s about loss and pain and sorrow and relationships, though it’s not without a sense of humor. Will and Hand go to Senegal. When asked why Senegal, they answer, “Because it was windy in Greenland.” Eggers has a flair for pomo literary ingenuity (and I mean that in the best possible way). Because it’s not trying to live up to “staggering genius,” it isn’t constantly straining to be hip and clever; instead it’s naturally honest, moving, and original.

Practically all young American writers these days have their characters travel to Eastern Europe (e.g., in The Corrections [all right], Prague [boring], The Russian Debutante’s Handbook [very good], etc.) and YSKOV is no exception. But while those other books felt like they were all recycling the same hipster experience, hipser posterboy Eggers’s characters aren’t poseurs, they’re genuine. And that’s what makes it work. That’s what makes it almost genius.

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