Eggers thanks the people who have allowed him to write about them, especially Beth and Toph. Moving on, he acknowledges that there are “perhaps too many memoir-sorts of books being written at this juncture.” These texts, he thinks, are “inherently vile and corrupt and wrong and evil and bad.” At the same time, he reminds people that “we could all do worse, as readers and writers.”
Again, it’s clear that Eggers is acutely aware of the reputation memoirs have received in the years leading up to his own contribution to the genre. This, it seems, is something that embarrasses him. However, his acknowledgement of this discomfort ultimately becomes part of his project as a memoirist, since recognizing his misgivings is ultimately a form of introspection.
Eggers tells a story about running into a writer friend at a bar and telling him that he’s working on a memoir, to which his friend says, “Don’t tell me you’ve fallen into that trap!” This makes Eggers think that “maybe writing about actual events, in the first person, if not from Ireland and before you turned seventy, was Bad.” His friend, he thinks, has a “point.” However, when he asks this man what he’s working on, the critical man replies by saying that he’s writing a screenplay about William S. Burroughs and “the drug culture,” and this makes Eggers feel better. Indeed, he realizes that there are worse ideas than writing a memoir.
Once more, Eggers doesn’t hide the fact that he’s embarrassed to have written a memoir. At the same time, he stands by his decision to examine his life, which he thinks is no worse than his friend’s run-of-the-mill idea to write a screenplay about William S. Burroughs, an author who has already been written about quite a lot. By spotlighting this interaction—in which he decides to embrace the idea of writing a memoir—Eggers essentially gives himself the artistic permission he needs to tell his story despite his many hesitations.
If, Eggers says, readers dislike the idea that this book is a memoir, they should feel free to “pretend it’s fiction.” He even makes them an offer: if readers send him their copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and a check for $10.00, he will send them back a floppy disk copy of the manuscript. All the names and places, he explains, will have been changed. What’s more, readers can even use their word processor’s “find and replace” function to change the manuscript themselves, turning the people and places to reflect anything or anyone they want. “This can be about you!” he writes. “You and your pals!”
Although Eggers has demonstrated his misgivings about memoirs, in this moment he makes fun of anyone who categorically judges a text based on its genre. To him, it doesn’t really matter if his story is considered fiction or nonfiction—either way, it’s a narrative that will unavoidably reference his life. Anyone unwilling to accept this, he suggests, is rather shallow, and he makes the tongue-in-cheek offer to send digital copies to people who might want to make the story about them and their “pals.” Note also the references (for example, to floppy disks) that make the narrative seem both contemporary and dated.
Eggers establishes that the title of his memoir is intentionally grandiose, but suggests that it was the least ridiculous option of the handful of titles he came up with for the project. He also goes out of his way to describe himself in a way that he thinks will endear him to readers, since he knows that the “success of a memoir—of any book, really—has a lot to do with how appealing its narrator is.” As such, he assures readers that he is like them, that he “falls asleep shortly after he becomes drunk,” that he “sometimes has sex without condoms,” that he “never gave his parents a proper burial” or finished college, and that he “expects to die young” (among other descriptions).
As if it’s not clear already, Eggers makes sure readers are aware of the fact that he’s drawn to exaggeration and hyperbole. This is made evident by the memoir’s title itself, of which Eggers appears simultaneously proud and embarrassed. What’s more, he reveals his penchant for rapid escalation when he provides a list of the ways he’s relatable. Of course, falling asleep “shortly after” becoming drunk is rather common, but Eggers quickly takes a darker turn when he says that he hasn’t given his parents “a proper burial” and that he “expects to die young.” Suddenly, his list of generalizations has become highly specific, forcing readers to leave behind the premise of his previous statement and focus solely on the attention-grabbing details of his life.
Addressing the content of the memoir itself, Eggers identifies several themes that are woven throughout the text. The first is “The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance,” which has to do with the seemingly “inconceivable” fact that he lost both his parents “in the space of 32 days.” This loss, he suggests, is “accompanied by an undeniable but then of course guilt-inducing sense of mobility, of infinite possibility, having suddenly found oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling.” Another salient theme, Eggers notes, is “The Brotherly / Weird Symbiosis Factor,” which has to do with his relationship with his little brother, Toph. Eggers doesn’t spend much time unpacking this in this section, though he does suggest that it runs throughout the book and that the love he has for his brother overshadows any kind of romantic love he might ever have.
Eggers surrounds his heartache with sarcasm and humor, but the pain of losing his parents still comes through quite strongly. So strongly, in fact, that he goes out of his way to identify “The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance” as the book’s most prominent concern. What’s interesting, though, is that he doesn’t focus solely on sadness or despair, but rather on the unexpected feeling of “infinite possibility” that came along with becoming an orphan. In turn, he’s caught between feelings of freedom and “guilt” as he mourns his parents while simultaneously reveling in the fact that—now that the worst has happened—his life can seemingly only get better.
The third theme that Eggers identifies is “The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious Book Aspect.” This, he posits, is “probably obvious enough already,” but the “point is” that Eggers doesn’t have “the energy” or “skill” to hide the fact that this book merely tells people things about his life in a way that isn’t “sublimated” or “narrative.” As made evident by the following theme, “The Knowingness About the Book’s Self-Consciousness Aspect,” Eggers makes sure readers know that he’s aware of his memoir’s use of self-consciousness. He says that he “plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality.” He knows that this is a “gimmick,” and as such intends to “preempt” any claim that this gimmick is “simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story.”
By acknowledging his memoir’s self-conscious style, Eggers creates a meta-narrative, or a storyline that is about the very act of storytelling itself. Not only does this help him examine himself (which is largely the point of this memoir), it also enables him to “preempt” any criticism readers might have about his self-consciousness—he wants everyone to know that he’s in control and that he knows exactly what he’s doing by commenting on his own project in this objective, removed manner. This, he says, is a purposeful technique, one that—despite its “gimmickry”—helps him deal with content that would otherwise be too painful to recount. In other words, Eggers’s meta-narrative approach enables him to access “the core” of his story.
Part of the reason Eggers uses “gimmickry” is because he finds it useful to “caricature” the “rage and sorrow” that would otherwise be too intense to write about. What’s more, he feels the need to tell “as many people as possible” about these difficult things—“even in caricatured or condensed form”—because he thinks doing so will “dilute the pain and bitterness.” This idea dovetails with the next theme, entitled, “The Telling the World of Suffering as Means of Flushing or at Least Diluting of Pain Aspect.” From this point on, the themes he provides become increasingly absurd, with long titles and hardly any explanation. On the whole, they have to do either with his desire to tell his story or his feelings of “fatalism” that emerge after his parents die, an experience that makes him feel both “chosen” for greatness and doomed to misery.
Storytelling, Eggers asserts, has the power to “dilute” pain. This, it seems, is why he has chosen to write a memoir despite his many misgivings about the genre. Furthermore, his tendency to portray things in absurd or humorous ways has to do with his feeling that turning something into a “caricature” ultimately makes it easier to write about. On another note, when he says that he feels “chosen,” he’s referring to the feeling of “infinite possibility” that arose for him in the wake of his parents’ death. However, he admits that losing his parents also reminded him of death’s inevitability, giving him the fatalistic sense that there’s nothing he can do to change his future.