In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers challenges the validity of his own autobiographical project. As early as the “Acknowledgements” section, which precedes the book’s first chapter, he refers to memoir writing as “inherently vile.” Despite his distaste for the genre, though, he still indulges his impulse to examine his life. He even points out that, although memoirs are perhaps “wrong and evil and bad […] we could all do worse, as readers and writers.” In this way, he criticizes autobiographical writing even as he ignores his own misgivings. Playing with this tension, he often switches gears in the middle of a story to comment on how, exactly, he’s telling that story. This analysis of the text in real time is a meta-narrative technique, or a way of examining the act of narration by calling attention to the storytelling process itself. By questioning his authorial decisions, Eggers invites readers to join him in his consideration of craft and form. He then folds this meta-narrative back into the memoir, moving on with whatever story he’s in the middle of telling. In turn, this authorial self-consciousness (or self-awareness) enables readers to come closer to Eggers’s experience, since they now have an understanding of his story itself and the critical thinking that has gone into telling that story. As such, Eggers slyly uses his skepticism of memoir to fuel this autobiographical project.
It quickly becomes clear that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius doesn’t conform to the narrative conventions of most memoirs. In the book’s Acknowledgements section, for instance, which is twenty-five pages long and appears before the first chapter, Eggers outlines some of the memoir’s salient themes, including “The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious” aspect of the book. He also promises to be “clear and up-front about this being a self-conscious memoir”—an impulse reflected in the fact that Eggers is already examining his authorial impulses before the book has even begun.
He takes this point one step further in the next theme, entitled “The Knowingness About the Book’s Self-Consciousness Aspect.” Regarding this, he notes: “While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referentiality”—that is, he is self-conscious about being self-conscious. Already, Eggers has presented readers with a dizzying amount of analysis and introspection. This is quite purposeful, as it seems Eggers wants to break the conventional structure of the memoir. To do this, he parodies the autobiographical tendency to unpack and analyze everything, no matter how small. However, by satirizing the memoirist’s impulse toward introspection, he ultimately scrutinizes himself even more closely. As a result, he challenges his own devices as a way of utilizing them to a greater extent.
Despite Eggers’s feeling that memoir writing is an “inherently vile” practice that promotes self-obsession and narcissism, he clearly believes that examining oneself can be a worthwhile endeavor. Wading through his sarcasm, readers might find themselves empathizing with his story, which is quite sad. In fact, Eggers’s story is so sad that he feels the need to use irony and meta-narration to tell it. The “gimmickry is simply a device, a defense,” he writes, “to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story, which is both too black and blinding to look at—avert…your…eyes!” According to Eggers, the self-conscious and meta-narrative “gimmickry” is “nevertheless useful, at least to the author, even in caricatured or condensed form, because telling as many people as possible about it helps, he thinks, to dilute the pain and bitterness and thus facilitate its flushing from his soul.” This self-conscious distance helps him relate his story, which would otherwise be too painful to closely examine. As such, he turns his memoir into a “caricature” of his life, enabling him to “dilute the pain and bitterness” of his experiences through narration that isn’t going to emotionally devastate him. And although this long preamble to Eggers’s “story” is “painfully” self-conscious and glib (and to some readers, perhaps off-putting), it gives readers the chance to experience the author’s struggle to come to terms with a difficult past.
No matter how much Eggers satirizes his own project by commenting on his narrative process, it’s clear he believes there’s something at the center of his story worth telling. For instance, when he visits his friend John in the hospital, he waits in the lobby and thinks about using the experience as “fodder for” a short story, but then he realizes that people have already written about such things. Because of this, he decides to write an “experimental short story” with meta-narrative observations about what it’s like to sit in a hospital thinking about writing an “experimental short story.” As he follows this cyclical thought process, he notes: “I could be aware of the dangers of the self-consciousness, 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.”
It’s worth noting that while Eggers thinks about these structural and narrative concepts, he also advances a story. For the moment, he directs readers’ attention to “self-consciousness” by analyzing what it would be like to write this “experimental short story.” At the same time, though, readers also know that within the narrative he’s currently sitting in the hospital waiting to see his friend. As such, there is a narrative “core,” a story Eggers is telling even as he spins a vast conceptual web. This, it seems, is why he employs absurdly meta-narrative and self-conscious “gimmicks”: he believes that the only way to access the “core” of certain stories is to make them into caricatures. As a result, readers see that his self-aware narrative style does more than simply mock the memoir genre—it enables him to represent ideas that otherwise escape articulation.
Self-Consciousness and Meta-Narration ThemeTracker
Self-Consciousness and Meta-Narration Quotes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Further, the author, and those behind the making of this book, wish to acknowledge that yes, there are perhaps too many memoir-sorts of books being written at this juncture, and that such books, about real things and real people, as opposed to kind-of made up things and people, are inherently vile and corrupt and wrong and evil and bad, but would like to remind everyone that we could all do worse, as readers and writers.
[The author] is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this, and will preempt your claim of the book’s irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding, murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story, which is both too black and blinding to look at—avert…your…eyes!—but nevertheless useful, at least to the author, even in caricatured or condensed form, because telling as many people as possible about it helps, he thinks, to dilute the pain and bitterness and thus facilitate its flushing from his soul […].
This part concerns the unshakable feeling one gets, one thinks, after the unthinkable and unexplainable happens—the feeling that, if this person can die, and that person can die, and this can happen and that can happen…well, then, what exactly is preventing everything from happening to this person, he around whom everything else happened? If people are dying, why won’t he? If people are shooting people from cars, if people are tossing rocks down from overpasses, surely he will be the next victim. If people are contracting AIDS, odds are he will, too.
“[…] I mean, it was almost as if it was too much to happen in one day, as if a number of days had been spliced together to quickly paint a picture of an entire period of time, to create a whole-seeming idea of how we are living, without having to stoop (or rise) to actually pacing the story out.”
“What are you getting at?”
“No, I think it’s good, it’s fine. Not entirely believable, but it works fine, in general. It’s fine.”
You know, to be honest, though, what I see is less a problem with form, all that garbage, and more a problem of conscience. You’re completely paralyzed with guilt about relating all this in the first place, especially the stuff earlier on. You feel somehow obligated to do it, but you also know that Mom and Dad would hate it, would crucify you […]. But then again, I should say, and Bill and Beth would say—well, probably not Bill, but definitely Beth—that your guilt, and their disapproval, is a very middlebrow, middle-class, midwestern sort of disapproval. It’s superstition as much as anything—like the primitives who fear the camera will take their soul. You struggle with a guilt both Catholic and unique to the home in which you were raised. Everything there was a secret—for instance, your father being in AA was not to be spoken of, ever, while he was in and after he stopped attending. You never told even your closest friends about anything that happened inside that house. And now you alternately rebel against and embrace that kind of suppression.
Anyway, with me you have this amazing chance to right the wrongs of your own upbringing, you have an opportunity to do everything better—to carry on those traditions that made sense and to jettison those that didn’t—which is something every parent has the chance to do, of course, to show up one’s own parents, do everything better, to upwardly evolve from them—but in this case, it’s even more heightened, means so much more, because you get to do this with me, their own progeny.
Everyone’s seen the show. We all despise it, are enthralled by it, morbidly curious. Is it interesting because it’s so bad, because the stars of it are so profoundly uninteresting? Or is it because in it we recognize so much that is maddeningly familiar? Maybe this is indeed us. Watching the show is like listening to one’s voice on tape: it’s real of course, but however mellifluous and articulate you hear your own words, once they’re sent through this machine and are given back to you, they’re high-pitched, nasal, horrifying. Are our lives that? Do we talk like that, look like that? Yes. It could not be. It is. No.
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 any sense of prejudice, firsthand or even in the abstract. With the kind of wealth and isolation we had from societal sorts of issues—crime, outside of the vandalism perpetrated by me and my friends, was unheard of—the town was free to see those kinds of things as a kind of entertainment—wrestling matches being contested by other people, in other places.
The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.