MTV’s show The Real World announces that its next season will take place in San Francisco, and puts out a call for cast members. Eggers and his friends make fun of the show, though they’re all secretly “morbidly curious” about it. In the first issue of Might magazine, they run a short joke letter to the producers, a letter in which one of their contributors acts like he desperately wants to be on the show. Eggers laughs with everyone else, but worries that this joke is “making fun of [him] in particular.”
Part of the identity Eggers has cultivated as a young person in San Francisco includes a certain anti-establishment, subversive mentality. As such, he feels obligated to scoff at something as mainstream as The Real World. However, it makes perfect sense that he also would be “morbidly curious” about it—after all, The Real World is a show that claims to depict reality while actually presenting a strange, hyper-aware version of life that is more performative than honest. This aligns with Eggers’s interest in self-examination as an act that can include overblown, hyperbolic, and even fictive elements of storytelling.
The Might team consists of Eggers and Moodie—the founding editors—as well as Marny and a handful of other old friends. Their office is in “a filthy corner of a shaky warehouse” that costs $250 per month. The rest of the building is full of like-minded young people putting out publications like Wired, which started on the same floor as Might and has now moved two floors up. Also on Might’s floor is a woman named Shalini, who works for an “ecotravel magazine” while also producing her own publication, Hum, which is “dedicated to uniting and speaking for/to/from twentysomethings of the South Asian American persuasion.” There are also several other magazines in the building, all of them devoted to documenting and changing the way young people live.
When Eggers starts working on Might in an environment swarming with people his age, it becomes clear that he and his contemporaries are interested in mining the experience of being young. Even the language they use to describe their endeavors speaks to this sense of youthful excitement. For instance, Shalini’s magazine is intended to reach “twentysomethings,” a word that Eggers himself will use in the coming years as a way of describing the purpose of Might.
Might positions itself as a publication that isn’t part of a particular scene, despite the fact that Eggers and his team are thoroughly entrenched in their generation’s anti-consumerist, contrarian, independent spirit. They put ads in other magazines declaring what they “are” and what they’re “not” about, declaring that Might “will be created by and for us twentysomethings.” They write this “listing-manifesto,” and within days of putting it into the world, they receive an onslaught of applications from interns and contributors willing to work for free because the concept of the magazine appeals to them.
Again, it’s obvious that Eggers and his friends are buzzing with excitement, and this excitement has to do with the fact that they’re young. They want to speak to their own generation, creating a publication “by and for” “twentysomethings.” This fascination with youth has become part of their collective identity. At least in Eggers’s case, this is unsurprising—as someone who doesn’t get to fully experience the life of a young “twentysomething” in the city because of his caretaking responsibilities, he’s all the more eager to participate in his generation’s cultural and creative production.
In the first issue, Might runs an opening essay that says: “Could a bunch of people under twenty-five put out a national magazine with no corporate backing and no clue about marketing? With actual views about actual issues? With a sense of purpose and a sense of humor? With guts and goals and hope? Who would read a magazine like that? You might.” They align themselves with causes, though mainly to access the organizations’ mailing lists. In essence, they try as hard as they can to establish themselves as a fresh, new presence in the media world. They even choose a picture of a man running naked on the beach as the first issue’s cover, and decide that the inside cover should show a huge group frolicking in the nude, too. When they photograph this, though, only four people agree to pose, including Eggers, Moodie, and Marny.
As a publication, Might is obsessed with putting forth an image of youthful possibility that also feels cutting edge. Eggers and his co-editors want to push the envelope of what’s accepted in popular culture. In doing so, they seek to prove the fact that they have some sort of new and youthful perspective that is valuable in and of itself, without “corporate backing” and “marketing” and all the other trappings of traditional media outlets.
Meanwhile, Eggers and Moodie do freelance design work for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Marny waitresses four nights per week. Eggers and Moodie feel as if working for the Chronicle is a flagrant “misuse of [their] creative powers,” but they have no choice but to keep producing work for the publication. Still, they feel strapped for money and desperate to get the word out about Might, so they decide to apply to be on The Real World, thinking that being on the show will give the magazine fantastic exposure. After sending in a strange but oddly captivating audition tape, Eggers receives a call from a producer named Laura, who invites him to come do a videotaped interview.
It’s rather convenient that Eggers is able to frame his interest in The Real World in terms of his desire to promote Might. While this probably does have something to do with why he wants to be on the show, it’s also clear that he’s simply drawn to the program. Again, this is unsurprising, since the show’s odd blend of reality, entertainment, and performance so closely aligns with the goals and self-conscious interests of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
When Eggers arrives at MTV’s San Francisco headquarters, Laura sits him down and asks him questions. Reproducing their conversation in the form of an interview transcript, Eggers talks about growing up in Lake Forest, which Laura points out is “one of the wealthiest towns in America.” Eggers acknowledges this but insists he wasn’t rich. He talks about his parents, explaining that his mother was a teacher and his father a lawyer, and when Laura asks if their family had much money when he was growing up, he reiterates that they weren’t rich, though he also makes it clear that they weren’t necessarily poor, either.
At this point in his memoir, Eggers has examined several aspects of his identity. He has contemplated his role as a guardian, his identity as a young bachelor, his professional persona, and even his position as a white man with unexamined racial biases. Now, in his conversation with Laura about his upbringing, he considers his socioeconomic status. As Laura urges him to talk about his family’s financial standing, he makes a point of establishing that he wasn’t rich, as if he’s embarrassed to have grown up in an affluent town like Lake Forest. As such, he hopes to obscure his relatively comfortable upbringing by emphasizing the fact that his family wasn’t wealthy.
Laura asks if Eggers felt like Lake Forest was divided based on wealth, wondering if he felt different from the rest of the town. As he answers, he tells her that he and his friends used to call the rich private high school “Country Gay” instead of “Country Day.” “This was a fairly intolerant town,” Laura replies. “Homogenous, yes; intolerant, no,” Eggers says. “It was overwhelmingly white, of course, but racism of any kind—at least outwardly expressed—is kind of gauche, so we basically grew up without a sense of prejudice, firsthand or even in the abstract.” He then tells a long story about a kid in his neighborhood who hung a Confederate flag in his window and convinced a bunch of other students to become bigots like him.
In this moment, it becomes increasingly obvious that Eggers wants to publicly examine the things he has taken for granted throughout his life. When he tells Laura that he and his friends used to call the rich high school in their town “Country Gay,” he fails to see why she finds this an insensitive thing to say. Or, rather, he doesn’t necessarily fail to see why she would find this “intolerant,” but he’s capable of ignoring the harmfulness of this joke because he has never been on the receiving end of this kind of quip. For him, “intolerance” wasn’t worth considering as a kid, since he grew up “without a sense of prejudice, firsthand or even in the abstract.” Of course, this is simply because he himself never had to experience prejudice. This doesn’t mean that prejudice didn’t exist in his town—he just never had to deal with it. Having said that, readers should keep in mind that this is Eggers’s memoir, meaning that he can present himself any way he wants. As such, the fact that he willingly reveals his naïve ideas about prejudice suggest that he recognizes them as problematic and wants to unpack them.
When Laura asks about whether or not there were many African American people in Lake Forest—or in Eggers’s high school—Eggers says that everyone in his school except four or five kids were white. One of the black kids, he notes, was Mr. T’s daughter, since Mr. T moved to Lake Forest and bought a mansion. He then tells a story about how the town got extremely upset when Mr. T cut down the trees bordering his house because they cast too much shade onto his property. Eggers’s father, for his part, thought it was hilarious how angry all these white people got about a black celebrity coming into town and cutting down their precious trees.
Again, Eggers reveals the sheltered and quietly racist quality of his hometown. This time, though, he seems more in touch with the fact that his community emanated a certain kind of low-level—though no less harmful—form of prejudice, which was directed at Mr. T because he was black and because he was an outsider in the town.
Eggers’s interview with Laura begins to spiral out into a vast overview of his entire childhood, tying in random stories like one time when his childhood best friend’s dad committed suicide by lighting himself on fire in his front yard. Eventually, Laura asks him why he’s telling her these stories, and he says, “These are the stories I tell. Isn’t that what you’re looking for? These terrible deaths tearing through this pristine community, all the more strange and tragic given the context, the incongruity—” Before he can finish, she interjects, saying, “So tell me something: This isn’t really a transcript of the interview, is it?” He admits that it’s not, and she suggests that it’s just a “device,” a “catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.”
Once more, Eggers uses an actual conversation in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to comment on the very means by which he’s telling his story. In this case, he has found a way to tell “a bunch of anecdotes” that wouldn’t otherwise fit into the narrative of his tale. And although these “anecdotes” don’t necessarily advance the plot in the way that Eggers’s meta-narrative conversations with John or Toph sometimes do, they ultimately help him develop the central themes of the book, expounding upon his examinations of identity, death, tragedy, and coming of age.
Eggers launches into an “anecdote” about Sarah, a girl two years older than him who was on his swim team. Eggers always admired her but never actually talked to until he saw her at a crowded bar shortly after his father died (but before his mother died). He and Sarah hit it off, and she took him back to her parents’ house, where they had sex and he slept in her bed. In the morning, she snuck him out and drove him home. Eggers wanted to tell her that what they’d done was a mistake because he was dating Kirsten, but when they got to his house he saw his mother through the window. Not wanting to tell her who Sarah was, he simply kissed Sarah and went inside.
In this “anecdote,” Eggers highlights the fact that his experience as a young caretaker in California isn’t the first time he has been straddled between two identities. Indeed, when his mother was dying, he was torn between being a young college student and a dutiful son. When he actually did the things a normal young person might do, he found himself feeling guilty, rushing back home and trying to hide his separate life from his mother.
Laura asks Eggers what he thinks he can offer The Real World, and he says he can serve as the “Tragic Guy.” Plus, he says, he has Might, which makes him unique. When she asks about the magazine’s name, he tells her it’s a “double entendre,” since “might” can mean both “power and possibility.” Making his case for why he should be on the show, he points out that Laura will need to cast a diverse set of people. He says she’ll need to find one or two black people, a couple of “really great-looking” but rather stupid people, a homosexual person, an Asian, Latino, or Native American, and—finally—a “tragic” white guy. He suggests that once viewers get to know him, his “struggles” will become “universal and inspiring.”
Eggers believes that, although his past is tragic and extraordinary, his struggle is ultimately relatable. This belief makes sense, considering that he’s writing a memoir about his experiences, an act that suggests he believes his life story might add something to the world. On another note, he again reveals his obsession with the idea of youth and opportunity, suggesting that his magazine represents both “power” and “possibility.” He also continues his examination of identity by referencing the fact that Laura will want to cast a diverse set of people for the show.
Laura asks Eggers why he wants to be on The Real World, and he says he wants people to “witness” his “youth.” He also says he wants to share his “suffering,” since “by sharing it [he] will dilute it,” though Laura says she thinks this will only “amplify” it. He disagrees, arguing that by going on the show he will add to his “lattice,” which is a term he uses to refer to “everyone else,” everyone in his life. “I see us as one, as a vast matrix, an army, a whole, each one of us responsible to one another, because no one else is,” he says. As he continues to speak, he talks about his various neuroses, and Laura asks him if he’s sure he wants to tell her this intimate information, but he maintains that telling his stories doesn’t do anything to deplete his experiences.
When Eggers references his “lattice,” he uncovers something about his obsession with youth. Believing that his generation is full of “power” and “possibility,” he sees his contemporaries as a support network, a “lattice” that helps lift each other up. This is interesting, since he has previously felt like his friends have no idea what kind of life he leads as Toph’s guardian. Nonetheless, he feels a strong sense of connection to his community in this moment. He also comments on the nature of storytelling, maintaining that spreading his tale will help him manage his pain. This, he says, will only help him face his harrowing memories.
Transitioning to a conversation about death, Laura asks about the concept of dying with dignity, and Eggers says, “You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of [dignity]. It’s never dignified, always brutal.” He then adds that dignity is nothing but “an affectation” that is “fleeting” and “mercurial.” He also reveals that he and Beth never gave their parents a “proper burial.” They were cremated, he explains, so he and Beth decided not to give them gravestones. In fact, they don’t even know where their parents’ remains are, since the company that cremated them hasn’t yet sent them their ashes, perhaps because the company doesn’t know where to send them. Eggers and Beth periodically discuss trying to track down the remains, but they never get around to doing so. Sometimes, he explains, it seems better this way.
Once again, a meta-narrative section has managed to advance new information, this time regarding the remains of Eggers’s parents. Since the first chapter of the book uses the future tense to skip the details of Eggers’s mother’s death, there is still quite a bit that readers don’t yet know about what happened after she died. Using this interview with Laura to examine his insecurities, Eggers shows readers that there are still things that haven’t been resolved regarding his parents’ deaths.
Eggers tells Laura that he rarely dreams of his parents. He has, however, dreamt about his father. In the dream, it occurred to him that perhaps his father is actually still alive, that his death was just “another deception.” When Laura asks what he means by “another deception,” he says, “Well, like all people who drink, and do so while successfully keeping a family and a job, he was an extraordinary magician.” He then explains that his father used to have AA meetings at the house even when he was drunk. Another trick he used to pull was drinking clear liquors out of tall water glasses because no one ever suspects that someone’s drinking alcohol out of a water glass. After a while, his mother stopped trying to get his father to quit, instead deciding to allow it as long as he stuck to beer or wine in the house.
Until now, there have only been two indications that Eggers’s father was an alcoholic: Eggers’s mention that his father would make a large Bloody Mary when he felt underappreciated by his family, and the meta-narrative conversation with Toph stating that their father “being in AA was not to be spoken of, ever.” Now, these references make more sense, as Eggers finally makes it clear that his father had a drinking problem. Interestingly, he includes this information in his meta-narrative conversation with Laura, as if telling the story of his father’s alcoholism would be too difficult to do using conventional narrative techniques.
Eggers recalls his father chasing him through the house, drunkenly trying to hit him. Once, when he hid in his bedroom, he tried to fashion a rope out of a bedsheet, hoping to use it to rappel out the window. Before he could do this, though, his father broke the door off its hinges. “So this was a child abuse situation?” asks Laura, but Eggers claims that his father never spanked him very hard once he got ahold of him. In fact, it was his mother who used to hit them rather hard, often smacking them over the head. At some point, though, Bill started laughing when she did this, ducking away and turning it into a joke. The rest of the children followed suit, and this effectively calmed things down, such that even Eggers’s mother would laugh.
Eggers feels guilty about revealing unflattering things about his parents. When Laura states the obvious—suggesting that his father was abusive—he immediately reframes his father’s actions, trying to make them sound less intense than they seemingly were. This sense of guilt is also why Eggers chooses to reveal these difficult stories in a section relying upon meta-narrative techniques. Telling these stories about “abuse” in a straightforward manner would most likely make them seem too disturbing, and Eggers would therefore feel shameful about speaking badly about his deceased parents. As a result, he decides to soften these anecdotes by couching them in a section that draws attention to its glib use of meta-narration.
Wrapping up their conversation, Eggers makes one more attempt to show Laura that he’s a “tragic” person who deserves to have his story told. “Can you not see that we’re extraordinary?” he asks her, referring to himself and Toph. “That we were meant for something else, something more?” He tells her he wants to be “the heart pumping blood to everyone.” “And will that heal you?” she asks. “Yes!” he replies. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
When Eggers says he wants to be “the heart pumping blood to everyone,” he tries to frame his story as something vital and important, something that will enhance the world if only he has the chance to tell it. And although this might be true, readers also know that the main reason he wants to make his story known is that he thinks doing so will dilute” his pain, a notion Laura intuits when she asks him if telling the world about his life will “heal” him.