Monday, May 12, 2003

Cartwheels: That's the only word I can come up with to describe Dave Eggers's Heartbreaking Work etc..., which I have finally read. Those who have read the book will understand. Those who haven't, pick up Bleak House instead. Eggers uses his writing style to perform the actual cartwheels he describes in the book, the way he demands that the world Pay Attention to Him because he's got something Important to Say. Blah. The funny thing is, I liked his characters a lot, and I bet he'd be a pretty good novelist if he'd quit goofing off. The trick of the characters offering critique on the narrative or the author stepping out front and center to comment in a sort of meta-narration? Been done before, Dave. The wiseacre fooling around before the story starts in the Preface, Introduction, Note to the Reader, Acknowledgements, and four or five other species of front matter is, in fact, wiseacre, but no more so than Twain's pre-Huck Finn admonition about looking for theme or plot. Plus, brevity usually is the soul of wit, and on that score, Twain's crack is priceless, while Eggers's stage-managed "meandering" is rather precious. As Miles Davis used to say about some performers preening on stage, there's a whole lot of style going on up there. It wasn't meant as a compliment, either, no matter what the literary world thinks of "style."

I have to say that I don't mind that Eggers has fun with a story that is, at its root, about tragedy and recovery. This is a topic worth having fun with, since sappy tragedy stories are a dime (at most) a dozen. In the end, though, the book becomes too much an exercise in stylistic deconstruction (e.g., about playing reliable narrator tricks and then copping to them in the next breath) and gets lost in its own maze. It's worth finding the characters in the book, for they are occasionally rewarding to find. Would've made a good long-essay piece.

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