In praise of Dave Eggers

‘Wunderkind’ is the kind of descriptor someone unimaginative would give to Dave Eggers. Glorious, deeply incisive, and sublime would be appropriate adjectives. His first book is modestly entitled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The preface (which you’re instructed not to read, but which you undoubtedly will anyway) indicates just how self aware and ironic Eggers intends the title to be:

…he [the author] is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all of this, and will preempt your claim of the books 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…

And the thing is, it really is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Neither AHWOSG and his more recent book What is the What are novels in the strictest sense. Both are fictionalised accounts of real life; AHWOSG of Egger’s own and What is the What that of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achek Deng. You can’t walk away from either of these books unchanged. In What is the What the narrative flips between the present, in which Deng is a victim of a home invasion in the USA, and his experiences in Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. Both experiences are horrific and yet the story is somehow also beautiful and hopeful. This is a moment from the home invasion:

 Finally he [Deng’s boy-captor] emerges from the kitchen with a phone book. He carries it over to me and holds it over my head.

“Young man! What are you doing?”

He drops the book. It is the first time in my life I have seen something coming toward me and been unable to properly react. I try to turn my head but still the book lands squarely on my face. The pain is compounded by my headache and the ricochet my chin makes against the floor. The phone book slides off, toward my forehead, and rests there, against my temple. Thinking he has accomplished his goal, he returns to the kitchen and the volume goes up again, This boy thinks I am not of his species, that I am some other kind of creature, one that can be crushed under the weight of a phone book.

The pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.

He’s a pretty impressive person too. He’s committed to writers, writing and creativity more generally, establishing magazines that nurture writers and artists and setting up writing programs for kids. This is a guy who practices what he preaches. Similar to the way we expect the faithful to bear ‘fruit’ for the gospel — I reckon Eggers bears fruit for writing and creativity.

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