A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Eggers isn’t chosen for The Real World. Instead, the show casts a cartoonist named Judd. “Fuck it,” Eggers thinks. “Stupid show.” He decides that Might doesn’t need The Real World. Nonetheless, he receives a submission from Judd several weeks later, and although he and Moodie agree the cartoons aren’t a good fit for the magazine, they invite Judd to come into the office, hoping he’ll bring the camera crew along. “In the month or so since that first issue,” Eggers notes, “Might has become something different. We are much less inspired than we were then, and going through with another one seems, on a certain level, more dutiful than impassioned.” The entire operation has started to feel like a job, which is exactly what he and Moodie always wanted to avoid.
Eggers and Moodie want to publish Might because they’re interested in participating in the current cultural moment, a period during which young people are doing exciting and seemingly subversive things. Eggers wants to establish himself as a creative individual, but now he realizes that doing this will require a lot of grunt work. As such, his youthful idealism—the feeling that anything is possible—wavers for the first time in his life.
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Related Quotes
Might begins “a pattern of almost immediate opinion-reversal and self-devouring.” If the magazine praised someone or something in its first issue, chances are it will ridicule that same person or thing in a later issue. Meanwhile, they try to attract advertisers by placing odd fake ads in their pages. When Judd visits with his portfolio, Eggers and Moodie make a point of dressing carelessly. This is a very self-aware attempt to look overly casual, since they both want to make sure people don’t think they actually care about The Real World. As the cameras circle around them and Judd shows them his drawings, they try to act serious but aloof, smart but slightly bored. In the end, the entire conversation airs as an eight-second clip in the second episode of the season, and although it’s so short, dozens of people call Eggers to say they saw him on TV.
Might magazine’s “pattern of almost immediate opinion-reversal” is nothing but an attempt to maintain its identity as a cutting-edge, contrarian publication. This is a way of combatting the fact that Eggers and Moodie feel “less inspired” than they did at the outset of their project. By publishing scathing critical articles, they simulate the youthful idealism they had when they first started the project. Meanwhile, they work hard to make it seem like they don’t care about what they’re doing, since this is also essential to their goal of appearing young and unbound by convention.
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One of the people who sees Eggers and Moodie on The Real World is Shalini, who loves MTV. They become good friends with her and help her design her magazine in exchange for “her thrillingly frequent, unbelievable, semi-erotic during-work backrubs.” They ask her to be part of their next photoshoot, but she declines because they’re looking for people to pose in the nude. Their idea is to publish a spread comprised of hundreds of pictures of people without their clothes on to “demonstrate what people’s bodies actually look like.” As they scramble to gather models, they try to find people of color and people with different body types, though this is an awkward thing to do, since they have to ask if anybody has nonwhite friends, male friends, flat-chested friends, friends with big penises, etc.
Eggers’s and Moodie’s idea to publish a collection of nude pictures showing “what people’s bodies actually look like” is in keeping with their desire to position Might as a fresh and uninhibited publication with new and challenging perspectives. In this case, their attempt to do this forces them to reckon with the fact that, although they might like to champion the idea of diversity, they are themselves a fairly homogenous cast of people. As a result, they feel uncomfortable when they try to portray themselves as diverse and inclusive, since doing this makes them tokenize other people based on race, gender, or a number of other identity-related attributes.
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Judd, who has agreed to be part of Eggers’s and Moodie’s nude photoshoot, promises to bring a friend from the Real World cast. This excites Eggers, who assumes the cameras will also come and thus thinks the world will finally see that Might is doing something “sociologically huge.” When Judd arrives with his friend, though, the cameras aren’t with them, and he explains that the film crew is with another cast member. Later, when Eggers and Moodie look at the results of the photoshoot, they’re surprised to see that they can’t tell who is who (the pictures are from the neck down). Eggers discovers that even Kirsten, who volunteered to take part in the semi-nude shoot (they decided it’d be easier to sell if it wasn’t fully nude), is hard to pick out amongst the many, many bodies.
In this situation, Eggers reveals his desire for attention, wanting badly to be noticed for the work he’s doing at Might. When this doesn’t come to fruition, he’s thoroughly disappointed, though it’s worth noting that this photoshoot—which was perhaps originally conceived of as a way of getting noticed—actually produces something interesting, since even Eggers can’t recognize people once he looks at the final results. This, of course, is the whole point of the photoshoot: to force people to look at bodies differently. As such, Eggers’s project succeeds even as he finds himself disappointed about its lack of media coverage.
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Eggers goes to the park with Toph, who is now eleven. They play Frisbee for a while, attracting attention with their fancy throwing and catching tricks. When they finish playing, they lounge about and begin to wrestle, but just when they start to really get going, Eggers notices older parents watching them with questioning eyes, so he rolls off Toph and they decide to head home. Upon arriving, Eggers receives a call from Meredith, who tells him their friend John has “been talking to her about ingesting the pills he has next to him.” Frantic and scared, Eggers tells Toph to stay inside and lock the door. He then speeds off in his car, worrying the whole way that he’ll be too late, that John will have already taken a handful of pills.
Having spent time considering Might magazine and his career, Eggers briefly circles back to Toph. He talks about playing games with his younger brother, showing readers that their relationship remains intact even as Toph grows older and they have to face new problems, like the fact that people are suspicious of them when they wrestle, since this isn’t something a parent would necessarily do in public with an eleven-year-old boy. As Eggers begins narrating this story about John, it’s important to bear in mind that John has, like Eggers, lost both parents. In this way, he represents the kind of person Eggers might have been if he hadn’t needed to throw all his energy into raising Toph.
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“Maybe he will do it,” Eggers thinks, considering whether or not John is serious about committing suicide. “Maybe this is it. Cannot believe this is me again. I’ll have a dead friend. Do I want a dead friend? Maybe I want a dead friend. There could be so many uses…No, I don’t want a dead friend. Maybe I want a dead friend without having a friend who dies.” Eggers arrives at John’s to find him sitting on the couch drinking wine. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asks, but John just smiles. “I hate this guy,” Eggers thinks. “Did you already do it?” he asks, still worked up from the drive. “Did you already do it? Fuck you if you did, you fucking cocksucker.” Next to John on a small table there is a smattering of loose pills. When Eggers asks what they are, John just shrugs.
When Eggers asks himself if he “want[s]a dead friend,” he recognizes that he has in some ways benefited from tragedy in the past—for instance, he’s writing a book about his parents’ deaths. As such, he wonders if it would be “useful” in a similar way if he also had a dead friend, but then he realizes how morbid this thought is and decides that, although the idea of having a dead friend might be attractive, the reality of that kind of tragedy would outweigh all other considerations.
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Eggers threatens to call the police, but when he picks up the phone, John tells him in a strange voice to relax. Eggers asks why he’s talking “like an asshole,” and John indicates that he’s been drinking (accidentally spilling his glass of wine on himself as he does so). “Aw, fuck you, I’m calling anyway,” Eggers says, and dials 911. After, he stomps around John’s apartment looking for “more clues.” “I half expect to find anything now,” he writes, “guns, drugs, gold bullion. This is fiction now, it’s fucking fiction.”
Eggers again calls attention to the ways in which he’s telling this story, this time admitting that his account of John’s possible suicide attempt has turned into “fiction.” In this moment, readers see how Eggers has worked himself up into this narrative, slowly becoming more entrenched in the creation of his story until, at a certain point, he’s forced to admit that he’s spun himself into something fictive, though it’s worth considering that this tale may still be at least vaguely representative of what happened in real life.
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Sitting down, Eggers asks why John’s so upset, guessing that it’s because he’s just been dumped by his girlfriend. John says it’s not his relationship that’s the problem, but rather his head. He points to it, rolling it forward drunkenly. “They’re dead,” he says, but doesn’t clarify whom he’s talking about. When the police come, they ask him what’s the matter, and John gives them the same shrug he gave Eggers. The police say he’s going to have to go to the hospital either way, and then he dives for the side table, grabs the pills, and shoves them into his mouth. “Now they’ll definitely pump your stomach!” Eggers says.
When John says, “They’re dead” without offering an explanation of whom he’s talking about, readers are reminded that he, like Eggers, lost his parents at a young age. Considering that this account is, by Eggers’s own admission, at least partially fictitious, it seems significant that he has chosen to give John this line about losing his parents, as if trying to communicate that they share the same struggle to overcome their difficult pasts. The difference between them, though, is that Eggers has chosen to adopt an optimistic worldview that enables him to care for Toph, whereas John finds it hard to move beyond his misfortune.
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Eggers follows John’s ambulance to the hospital, where he sits in the waiting room and watches Conan O’Brien on TV. Before long, he wishes he had a pen and paper so that he could write down the details of his experience, since it occurs to him that this might make a good short story or novel section. However, he stops himself from going to fetch a pen from his car, since he thinks doing so would be “crass.” Instead, he decides to “revel in the simultaneous living of an experience and its dozen or so echoes in art and media,” since he knows that stories about waiting in hospitals are cliché and thus have already been told.
As he waits in the hospital, Eggers once again contemplates the act of storytelling. This time, though, he considers not just a style of narration, but the validity of telling a story in the first place. This is what causes him to think that getting a pen from his car would be “crass,” since the story he would write would inevitably borrow heavily from John’s life even as that life (or death) is taking place in real time. However, it’s obvious that he’s moved past this conviction, since this story appears in his memoir. The way he has decided to approach the fact that he’s stealing John’s story is by acknowledging his misgivings, once again using a meta-narrative technique to deal with material he otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable handling.
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Eggers contemplates his desire to write about this odd experience, considering the ways that his self-conscious style will help him create an effective narrative. “I could be aware of the dangers of the self-consciousness,” he writes, “but at the same time, I’ll be plowing through the fog of all these echoes, plowing through mixed metaphors, noise, and will try to show the core, which is still there, as a core, and is valid, despite the fog. The core is the core is the core. There is always the core, that can’t be articulated. Only caricatured.” When he’s finally allowed to visit John, he finds him lying on a bed with tubes coming out of his mouth and nose.
This is the second time Eggers has used the word “core” in relation to storytelling. The first time is in the acknowledgements section, when he says that the “gimmicks” he uses as a writer help him access the “core” of a story, which might otherwise be too painful to write about. He sets forth the same idea in the hospital, as he reiterates that certain stories can only be “caricatured” because they’re otherwise too painful or complex to address.
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Eggers watches John sleep and remembers what he was like as a kid. Then, suddenly, John stands up and pulls the tubes out of himself. “Fuck it,” he says. Eggers asks what he’s doing, and he says he’s leaving. “Screw it,” he says, “I’m not going to be a fucking anecdote in your stupid book.” Eggers tries to stop him, saying he’s “supposed to stay overnight” while he—Eggers—stays until 3 in the morning. “Then I come in tomorrow and visit you in the psychiatric ward, and then—” he says, but John cuts him off, saying that he doesn’t want to be in Eggers’s story. “Find someone else to be symbolic of, you know, youth wasted or whatever.”  “Listen, John,” Eggers says, prompting him to ask why he’s calling him John. “That was my dad’s name,” Eggers says. “So I’m your dad, too,” John replies.
Eggers again has his characters transcend the world he has built for them, enabling them to comment on the choices he has made as an author. When he tells John what is “supposed” to happen, he manages to provide a meta-narrative layer to the text while still advancing the plot, since he’s explaining what will happen in the follow pages, assuming John doesn’t get up and run away from the story. What’s more, he reveals that John is a symbolic amalgamation of multiple things. Not only does he represent “youth wasted,” but he also symbolizes Eggers’s father, though he doesn’t quite make it clear how this is the case, other than that he has given this character his father’s name.
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Eggers convinces John that he deserves to be able to tell his story. After all, he claims, John’s decisions influence his life, too, and this gives him permission to tell the story. “This is mine,” he says. “You’ve given it to me. We’re trading. I gave you the attention you wanted, I bail you out, when you spend three days in the psyche ward, and say how you’re still thinking of doing it, I’m the one who comes in and sits on your bed and gives you the big pep talk.” Now, Eggers maintains, he “get[s] this.” After a moment, John relents, agreeing to get back in the bed so that Eggers can resume his story. “Listen,” Eggers says as he helps him replace the tubes, “I really appreciate this.”
Although it’s true that Eggers steals the stories of his friends and loved ones in order to write this book, it’s also the case that the stories partially belong to him. After all, he’s not narrating the entirety of John’s life, but only the parts that involve him (Eggers). As such, he has a point when he suggests that this episode in the hospital also belongs to him, though this idea does invite readers to question the notion of ownership when it comes to storytelling—a question that Eggers poses but doesn’t answer, perhaps because he himself is conflicted about the issue.
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John spends three days in a psychiatric ward. When Eggers visits him, he admits he still might kill himself, though he isn’t sure. He then rolls over on his bed, and Eggers realizes he’s expecting a speech. Eggers resents John for making him deliver a cliché monologue about the fact that people care about him. Using various lines he has heard in movies, he says “nothing but the most rapturous and positive things,” although he himself doesn’t believe anything he’s saying.
Once more, Eggers is uncomfortable doing something that might be considered cliché. In the same way that he is self-conscious about writing a memoir because it has become a trendy genre, he now resents John for forcing him to speak in a manner that doesn’t feel genuine. As such, readers see that Eggers is very particular about how he uses language, never wanting to appear inauthentic or conventional, an aversion that possibly arises from his desire to be seen as a creative and unique individual.
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