Friday, September 9, 2011

F***ing anecdote

I firmly believe that reading should not be a chore, but as I am a compulsive finisher, some books can be more effortful than others. I've had some books I've been angry at, but the times I've felt like I was wasting my time are few and far between. And despite its preciousness, pretentiousness, and (failing to come up with another pre- word) extraordinary self-indulgence, I didn't find that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius made me either angry or irritable. Sighingly impatient perhaps, or fairly bored upon occasion. Thank goodness for Dion Graham, whose really stellar performance makes this go down pretty easily.

This work -- originally published in 2000 -- is catalogued as Biography in my library, but memoirist Dave Eggers tells us that much of it is fictionalized. Perhaps revisited would be a more accurate description: I believe these things happened to Dave, but because he's kind of a jokester, his re-creations of events and conversations aren't exactly trustworthy. Several times, his characters jump out of character and begin talking to Dave as if they know they are speaking for Dave's posterity (if not their own). Isn't this meta-something? My post title is taken from one of these instances: "I don't want to be a fucking anecdote in your stupid book!"

When Dave was 21, his parents died (of two different cancers) within a month of one another. Dave and his two older siblings decided that they would parent their much younger brother Toph (Christopher) together, with Dave taking the primary role. Dave and eight-year-old Toph moved away from their suburban Chicago home to the Bay Area. For the next five or six years, the boys raised each other, while Dave established himself as a GenX literary gadabout, founding the satirical Might magazine, and trying out for MTV's Real World.

There are moments of real honesty here, particularly in the beginning. Eggers' descriptions of his mother's final days are indeed heartbreaking. When he and Toph set up housekeeping, it's a hilarious frat party of a never-changing menu (potatoes in the French style), spoiling food, dirty dishes, and Toph frantically waking up Dave in time to get him to school.

As the book winds on (and on), it gets less engaging. The lengthy section devoted to Dave's audition for the Real World ups the pretentiousness (although we finally get a little more info about his family's life in Lake Forest), as does the shenanigans involved with the production of Might's bimonthly issues (nude photographs, the faked death of a celebrity). Dave fantasizes about death and disaster frequently. Toph disappears for long periods. At the end, as Dave and Toph are preparing to move to New York, it appears they gave up on San Francisco because they were bored and needed something new to do. The audiobook concludes with the preface Eggers wrote to the paperback edition. More self-indulgence and meta-explanations. Here's where he says what he wrote is fiction.

The cover joins the circus as it was created by those 90s art rock-stars, Komar and Melamid. I guess the title might get you to open the book, but that painting sure wouldn't. Interestingly, audiobook publisher Recorded Books, which almost never uses a book's original cover, uses this. I wonder if they were contractually obliged to.

I listened to this because of Dion Graham, and I'm glad I did. It's an outstanding narration. He doesn't hold back on Dave's grief, his love of Toph, his childishness (and the fact that he knows he's infantile), even the intense sincerity with which he tells the Real World producer his life story. He reads quickly when necessary (speeding across the Bay Bridge for a few hours without Toph has the rhythm of a true getaway), but never lets go of the narrative's underlying emotion. It is through Graham that I understand that this story is one of a person working through loss. It's not a self-indulgent exercise in hipness. Had I read this with my eyes, Genius would have just been words ... annoying, pretentious, wa-a-ay overdone. Ironically, it is Graham who gives this story a heart.

When I was lucky enough to meet Dion in 2010, he told me that Eggers had been so impressed with his work on What is the What that he knew that Graham was the only one who should narrate Genius. If I'm remembering correctly, Eggers told the publisher that no one else was to be considered. This is pretty radical in audiobooks: Graham is a black man narrating a white man's story. Thank goodness we live in an audiobook world where culturally appropriate narrators are available to narrate books by and/or about people who aren't white; but an even better world is the Eggers/Graham universe: Where the match between narrator and book is the only thing that matters.

[The broken heart image was created by Nevit Dilmen and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Narrated by Dion Graham
Recorded Books, 2010. 13:30


Jennifer, Snapshot said...

I found you at Devourer of Books --

I have always been curious about this book. I'll for sure check it out on audio if I get around to it at all.

I have almost never given up on an audiobook (unless the narrator is just bad, in addition to a bad story), but I have stopped wasting my time on bad books. I seem to have more tolerance for a well-narrated story even if it has writing or plot flaws.

book blog: 5 Minutes for Books

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

I'm thinking I need to listen to something narrated by Dion Graham now, but I'm also thinking I'm glad I didn't get more than 20 pages into this in print.