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The Dave Eggers show
Photo of Dave Eggers signing copies of his book
A heartwarming night of swaggering geniality

It's Valentine's 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

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

Lee Pellegrini

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