Day night, that bastion of Hallmark sweethearts and suburban roses,
and Gasson 100 is crammed with the young. Their abs are visible
and flat, their nose rings shine, they wear hip orange knit caps
with pompoms utterly ridiculous on anybody over 25, and they travel
in packs--none of this paired-off stuff. Ten minutes late, and to
frantic ap- plause, author Dave Eggers lopes into the room, taller
than you'd think from the jacket photo on his wildly popular book,
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and definitely
buff, in jeans and a brown sweater over a drooping brown T-shirt,
wearing scuffed brown oxfords spattered with white paint, a subtle
shadow on his jaw.
Boyish and shy, he hangs his curly-mopped head, then drinks from
a bottle of water. Can he be--this celebrity of almost two years--self-conscious?
Not in that postmodern self-conscious way (where you're conscious
of being self-conscious and what other way is there to be?) but
the way one of us would feel if we wrote a book about the time of
our deepest anguish and then had to face our readers? "It's unusually
cold, isn't it?" he asks the crowd.
"I didn't bring a coat." Pause. "Anyone have a coat?" A Dickens
orphan with a gamin's charm, Dave Eggers knows how to work a room.
Best known for his memoir (AHWOSG to those in the know) about
being 21 and raising his seven-year-old kid brother after both their
parents died within 40 days of each other, Eggers is also the editor
of the literary, satiric magazine McSweeney's Quarterly Concern
("A Journal Created by Nervous People in Relative Obscurity").
Though now over 30, he captures the heavy irony that is the abiding
burden of the young ("Yeah, right.") and its X-treme contemporary
version: the sense of self-redoubled that a generation reared on
MTV's The Real World feels with every gesture.
At BC, Eggers reads from a feature in McSweeney's called
"Sex Stories That Lose Their Way," a parody of porn narratives.
This piece features two nubile teen girls at an ice cream shop who
are described in terms explicit enough that Eggers drops his head
in embarrassment. (It's hard to tell if it's mock or not, but one
remembers that Eggers is from a Catholic family outside Chicago.)
The students in the audience laugh nervously, and then hilariously,
as the narrator's thoughts turn from Shauna's breasts to Shauna's
father, whose one leg is shorter than the other. Perversely, his
obsession with the father's lack of symmetry threatens to replace
his appreciation of the fleshly symmetry in front of him.
"What is this room used for?" Eggers asks, glancing around
him at the stained glass windows and Gothic carving of the Irish
Room. A couple of lame, unintelligible answers from the crowd. "It
looks like a cafeteria." Silence as the audience absorbs this
slight. "A nice one," he adds, "like in Harry
Potter." The crowd laughs as he points to a young woman's
Potter sweatshirt and deadpans, "I heard those books are popular."
More performance than reading, tonight's event, sponsored by the
University's Lowell Lecture Series, consists of samples of Eggers's
work--all of it somehow ironized, set in quotation marks, by the
accompanying use of less-than-cooperative multimedia. When Eggers,
with the help of a baseball-capped student named Ryan, gets the
slide projector to work, the slides are backwards. He apologizes,
but since all he is showing is the typed layout of page 52 of his
new book in its various revised versions, showing it backwards is
really beside the point (and, one suspects, exactly the point):
"Notice how I then put this section in italics; they're in vogue
now--the type at an angle makes the reading go faster." Eggers displays
his craft, while parodying his role as author-lecturer. (In the
Lowell Series, Eggers appears, chronologically, between Pulitizer
Prize-winning biographer David Levering Lewis and Reconstruction
scholar Eric Foner.)
Next Eggers turns on a boom box, but the music blasts out of the
oversize speakers mounted incongruously on the wood-paneled walls.
Eggers can't believe it: he only wanted background sound, not a
concert, and now Ryan comes up again to try to fix the problem.
"Are you like an RA or anything?" Eggers asks Ryan.
Toto's "Rosanna" shrieks out of the boom box and Eggers begins to
read a passage about a junior high dance, a dead-on description
of a tangle of sweaty adolescent bodies on a dance floor, their
tongues entwining like "squids sucking on each other's brains."
As the story builds to a crescendo of partner-swapping and wet tongues,
the narrator repeats rhetorically, with the in-your-face inflection
of every teenager down the ages, "And why not?. . . And goddamn
it, why not?"
A careful writer and endless reviser, despite the insouciant self-presentation,
Eggers reads one of the new passages he has added to the paperback
version of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It
has his trademark over-the-top emotion and Whitmanesque expansiveness,
but the bathos is always skewered by the author before the reader
gets there. The passage describes Eggers and his brother Toph in
an impromptu meeting with President Bill Clinton in a crowd outside
a San Francisco restaurant. Raised up in the crowd by his older
brother, Toph reaches out and touches Clinton's hand. The scene,
as Eggers unfolds it, evokes the young Clinton's famous handshake
with President Kennedy while still a student--and more: "God's
finger lazily extended toward Adam's." Eggers briefly imagines
this fleeting sidewalk encounter as Frank Capra would have filmed
it in another world, one more innocent and gee-shucks. But then
it's back to America today: layers of reference, parodies of parodies,
videos of flesh. Clinton is "so seemingly real--he is real,
yes, certainly more real than the last few. . . and though we hope
that he is real even if he is not entirely real he is more real,
and smart enough to seem real, and wins both ways. . . ."
As the reading ends, students, a couple of them on scooters, crowd
around Eggers. A middle-aged woman, one of the few over 30 in the
audience, says to
her friend, "His mind is just on some other plane!" The other woman
exclaims, "I'm in love with him!"
Signing books afterward, now wearing a navy baseball cap with an
M on it, Eggers sits at a table for an hour and a quarter,
fully as long as his reading, individualizing each book with a slim
felt pen. CURT, he writes at the top of one title page; at the bottom
he draws a 3-D open box with the words "a box half-full of
ennui & desperation."
As for the other half of the box? A few minutes earlier, Eggers
had quietly asked a group of students around him if any were education
majors. (McSweeney's, by the way, has just opened a nonprofit
writing lab for underprivileged youth in San Francisco.) When one
young man said he planned to teach high school English, Eggers took
out what looked like his payment for the evening--a check for $1,500--and
signed it. "You'll be underpaid your whole life," he said.
And he endorsed the check over to the student.
And why not? And goddamn it, why not?
Clare Dunsford is an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Her account of the last passions of W. B. Yeats appeared in BCM's
Winter 2001 issue.
Photo: Anticipating an Eggers autograph