We Are The World: The Dave Eggers Phenomenon

The American author Rick Moody once referred to his friend and colleague Dave Eggers as ‘the Bono of literature’. Something of a backhanded compliment, Moody’s comment was an attempt to celebrate Eggers’s energetic involvement in projects designed to practically improve the state of the world.

Bono, the singer for an internationally successful rock band, changed his public profile by using his celebrity to throw attention to important social and political issues such as global debt, foreign aid and fair trade; but not without criticism. In an era of global communication his strategy is certainly in tune with the times, but it implies that doing well in life and doing good go easily hand-in-hand, and indeed that one can reinforce the other.

When Dave Eggers’s first book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was published in 2000, turning his celebrity toward positive social ends wasn’t such a priority. He distinguished himself from the majority of first-time authors not only by courting publicity, but also mocking it. Eggers’s ambition, stated repeatedly throughout a memoir that dealt with the death of his parents, was to get the public’s attention. ‘You need someone like me,’ he told his readers. Again and again throughout the undeniably sad story, Eggers clears the lump from his throat and resolutely sticks his tongue in his cheek:

I am bursting with the hopes of a generation, their hopes surge through me, threaten to burst my hardened heart! […] I am the product of my environment, and thus representative, must be exhibited, as inspiration and cautionary tale. Can you not see what I represent? I am both a) martyred moralizer and b) amoral omnivore born of the suburban vacuum + idleness + television + Catholicism + alcoholism + violence; I am a freak in secondhand velour, a leper who uses L’Oréal Anti-sticky Mega Gel.

Casting himself as the Walt Whitman of Generation X, the Eggers of then imagined he was the representative of a new community united in its obsession with itself.

***

These days, Eggers is credited as a representative of a new community. In contrast to his early sentiments, however, his focus is decidedly outward-looking and earnest. In 2002 he invested the profits from his success into a charity he devised called 826 Valencia, offering students free tutoring and literacy development. Next he collaborated to produce Teachers Have it Easy, an exposé of the disintegration of the United States educational system, and then two works of first-person testimony, penned by Eggers but based on the life experiences of others. The first, What is the What, with Valentino Achak Deng, provides an account of life as one of the Sudan’s ‘Lost Boys’. The second, Zeitoun, documents the experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family, caught up in the political confusion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the background to all of this activity was the growing success and diversification of his publishing house, McSweeney’s, which, in addition to its original quarterly literary magazine now publishes a slate of idiosyncratic novels, a monthly critical review magazine, the Believer, a DVD magazine, Wholphin, and a food magazine called Lucky Peach.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2007 Eggers was the youngest person to receive the Heinz Award for philanthropic work. In 2008 he was presented with a TED prize dedicated to ‘inspiring the world’. The following year he was crowned the National Book Foundation’s Literarian of the year, an award given to an individual for ‘outstanding service to the American literary community’. Now in his early 40s, Eggers is nothing if not representative of his generation, even if that means being a typical example of Generation X grown-up and settleddown:  a couple of kids, a vegetable garden, a predilection for the locally sourced, the ethically produced, and the made-by-hand.

In a recent New York Times review of Eggers’s latest novel, A Hologram for the King, Pico Iyer described the author as coming from ‘a much more sober, humbled, craftloving time’. Like countless other X-ers once preoccupied by not wanting to appear too pre-occupied by anything at all, Eggers is concerned about globalisation, education, the environment, and a less complicated life. Iyer imagines him ‘bristling with attitude and backward-looking invention’.

This last comment is no doubt a reference to Eggers’ once obscure, now very well recognised literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern which he first made himself at home in his apartment in Brooklyn, carefully designing it to look like an eighteenth-century periodical (no photography, scant line illustrations, tightly justified text in multiple columns).

But Eggers’ unique sensibility goes much deeper than a taste for old-fashioned typography or an admiration for the once triumphant spirit of American can-do-ism. For all that Iyer says about Eggers being craft-loving and backward-looking, his outlook is a global one, and a very contemporary one, insofar as his work explores how a faltering sense of faith in ourselves and others can leave us vulnerable to become the worst, or at least the not-very best of ourselves.

This is certainly the case in A Hologram for the King, where Eggers takes his central character, Alan, a middle-aged businessman, out of America to Saudi Arabia’s near-deserted but ever-expanding King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) to show us how a man might slowly and unspectacularly fall apart. KAEC offers Eggers, and Alan, a portal into a global space where it is clear America is no longer the centre of things. After a medical scare, for instance, Alan is attended by a Saudi Arabian woman surgeon, aided by a Chinese, a German, an Italian and a Russian. The promise of the city is that all these disparate people might work together to make something good and new, but this is undercut by the stringent local moral codes which are so detached from real life they turn everyone into hypocrites: No drinking! But of course they do. No sex! But of course there is. No drugs! But they’re everywhere. Where can anyone put their faith, Eggers seems to be wondering.

Alan is a man whose life is in decline. He has been sent by his company, Reliant, a large IT business, to be part of an important pitch to become the major supplier for KAEC. The bid hinges on impressing the powerful King Abdullah with a live hologram link-up to a Reliant executive in London.

Alan has been asked to assist not because of his skills but because at one time in the distant past he had a short acquaintance with the king’s nephew. Reliant hope that this personal ‘in’ will give them an edge against their competition. Alas, Alan is not the advantage Reliant hope him to be. They are dependent on him, but he is just as dependent on them. Without this deal with the Saudis he can’t pay his daughter’s college tuition and several hefty personal loans and debts.

A Hologram for the King makes Alan’s experiences emblematic of the disintegration of America more broadly – American manufacturing, American power, American influence, and American confidence. Alan is frustrated and impotent. What he needs is a meaningful project in which he can invest himself. The closest he gets to the satisfaction of this thwarted drive is during a sight-seeing trip in the country, when he sees some men building a wall and convinces them he’d like to help.

Here we come to Eggers’s central concern (in this and, indeed, in all his works): the need for individual energies to be channelled into collective efforts towards a common good. In his memoir Eggers spoke of himself and his friends as cannibals devouring themselves, and each other, anything to fill the void and provide a temporary sense of purpose.

In that case, redemption came through working together with friends on a short-lived magazine called Might, and later, on McSweeney’s. The success of that publication, which began life as just 1500 copies delivered to bookstores by hand, was down to the fact that Eggers understood it would only work if he knew he could rely on his readers. The secret to his success was his recognition that readers matter at least as much as authors. As Eggers told Forbes magazine in 2006, ‘[w]e were determined to rely only on the support of readers. We grew only in relation to what readers would support’.

This is not just a business model: for Eggers it seems like a philosophy of action; what the theologian might call praxis, or more simply, acting in conduct with your convictions and the common good.

***

Collective creation and collaboration, the acknowledgement that other people need to be taken into account, these have become Eggers’s antidote to the self-destructive energies of the egotistic cannibals we are in danger of becoming. It’s no accident that Eggers wrote the screenplay (and later the novelised version) of Maurice Sendak’s famed children’s story Where the Wild Things Are.

Sent to bed without dinner for misbehaving, the young hero Max retreats into himself and becomes the king of the wild things – a bunch of motley monsters free to do as they please. This kind of self-interest can be cathartic, as Eggers’s novelisation makes clear, especially when surrounded by a host of frustrating adults determined not to listen to a single word a child might say.

These impulses, however, also have to be kept in check. In his collection of short stories How We Are Hungry (2004) – a title that might have been written for all the Maxes in the world sent to bed early for bad behavior – Eggers explores one very easy way to do this: shut up. Entitled ‘There Are Some Things He Should Keep To Himself ’, the story consists of five entirely blank pages. Read, or rather, not read, in light of the runaway success of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and that book’s tendency towards unstoppable ironic egotism, this story is Eggers’s way of acknowledging the wisdom to be gained by paying attention to the silences.

Indeed, until his latest book, self-silencing has been Eggers’s preferred literary mode. After the success of his memoir and the subsequent lukewarm critical reaction to his follow-up, a novel entitled You Shall Know Our Velocity, Eggers broadened his range and began to experiment with new voices and perspectives. In particular, directing himself toward documenting real life stories of pain, injustice and suffering, working in collaboration with those who had lived through it.

In both What is the What and Zeitoun, Eggers attempted to evacuate the story entirely and assume the perspective of his interlocutors. The premise behind this approach is that a writer’s abilities can be directed in a simple move away from the self toward the experiences of others. But this is not easy, and perhaps not even possible: there is no such thing, after all, as autobiography-by-proxy.

For all the good intentions Eggers has in seeking to bring to life unheard stories, the supposed ventriloquism he performs is questionable – it’s one thing to reinvest the profits of one’s success into charity, and another thing entirely to believe you can reinvest your own (well-known and celebrated) identity into another person’s in order to lend attention to their suffering and struggle. Beyond those murky identity politics is the fact that, as a literary device, this kind of impersonation is unconvincing: Eggers is Eggers. Although he tries to avoid this by having Valentino’s story told in the first person and Zeitoun’s in the third, both narratives are clearly marked by Eggers’s own linguistic style – his fancy for the declarative, his dislike for contractions, his use of the conditional tense.

Compelling and tragic as these two books are, they are distracting in their attempts to eliminate Eggers, and their well-intentioned attempt to turn writing into an entirely useful, beneficial, and constructive project. Sometimes this just is not possible, as recent events involving Zeitoun have demonstrated. But, as The Wild Things and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius both make clear, creative energies can be wildly destructive. This discomforting reality is something Eggers returns to in A Hologram for the King. Back at home in America, lonely Alan has attempted to recapture his glory days as a bicycle salesman by directing all his energies and finances into the development of his own all-American bicycle:  chrome-shiny and super-sleek. Alan’s delight turns to depression, however, as he realises that no one will ever back the project. Bikes, like so much else these days, aren’t made in America – and Alan, for all his good intentions, is nothing more than a failed salesman.

Alan is committed to the idea that building things is inherently productive and positive; whether that’s constructing stone walls in the countryside, or building shimmering cities in the dust. But this is all challenged by confrontation with the realities of a global world where economies of scale, and flows of money and information rule the day. American dreams are not guarantees of American success.

‘Books, inherently, require faith,’ Eggers told an interviewer for Esquire in 2008. So too, do investments. In that sense, books are humanistic investments, commitments that go beyond financial interests. Readers, Eggers says, need to have ‘[f ]aith in an author that he or she will reward the many hours you’ll spend in those pages, faith that a good story will be told, a lesson will be learned, a light will be shone upon a dim corner of the world.’

His latest book evinces this interest in shining a light on the dim corners, not only the Middle East, but more particularly, the middle-American psyche, a place where the longing to do well is put in confrontation with a desire to do good.

 

Caroline Hamilton is a research fellow in the Department of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne and has written a book on Dave Eggers’s literary career, One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity (Continuum, 2010).

 

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