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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


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#41 Christian

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 03:53 PM

On the contrary, Mark, I watched the third season of The Real World the only season of the show Ive bothered with in all the years its been on and I remember some of the people, and their back stories, vividly. Funny, though, that Eggers was pre-empted by the cartoonist, Jedd (Judd?), who was one of the more forgettable people from that season.

I enjoyed this chapter of the book simply because it reminded me of the show, and I realized that, at some point, I had seen Eggers on the show, in his publishing office, never realizing, of course, that hed become much more prominent in the sense of accomplishing something permanent (a well-received book and writing career) - than any of the shows cast members.


#42 Mark

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 04:35 PM

QUOTE(Christian @ Feb 14 2005, 03:53 PM)
On the contrary, Mark, I watched the third season of The Real World the only season of the show Ive bothered with in all the years its been on and I remember some of the people, and their back stories, vividly.

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Admittedly, it's a sweeping generalization on my part to say Eggers is more interesting than any other Real World-ers, especially since I've never really followed the show very closely. I think Eggers' description of the typical Real World cast, though, illustrates his point pretty well.

First they get a black person who's a hip-hopper or rapper. Then a couple of great-looking white people who are shallow and stupid, and who will be made to seem even more shallow and stupid by the smart, hip, black rapper or hip-hopper. The gay guy and/or girl. An Asian or Latino. A straight-laced professional type. And the prerequisite for everyone is that they are easily offended - presumably by the assumption that they fit a stereotype which they obviously do fit, since MTV cast them because they fit that stereotype.

It doesn't really matter to the show whether the players have a good back story -- if they do, great, if not, no worries -- as long as they push the right buttons. Eggers doesn't, so he tries to create a new category, "tragic guy".

Did Eggers actually make it onto a portion of the show? I've skipped ahead a bit in the book, and see that he becomes friends with Judd, but I didn't know Eggers got any camera time.

#43 Christian

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 04:45 PM

QUOTE(Mark @ Feb 14 2005, 04:35 PM)
Did Eggers actually make it onto a portion of the show? I've skipped ahead a bit in the book, and see that he becomes friends with Judd, but I didn't know Eggers got any camera time.

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Yeah, he says that Judd comes to the magazine to submit some art work, and the camera crews follow along. He drops by more than once, giving Eggers upstart publication a shot in the arm.

#44 Crow

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 09:14 AM

I thought this was a pretty interesting chapter. The Real World interview was illuminating, illustrating the stark difference between "reality" television and true reality, as represented by Dave's backstory. It's telling that "Tragic Guy" wasn't considered interesting enough for the show's producers.

This chapter contains what I think is the funniest scene from the entire book, the filming of the first Might magazine cover. It was very funny how they tried to create an edgy daring picture by having a group of naked people running on a beach. First they had to try to obtain a politically-correct cross-section of people from various ethnic backgrounds, then they found out that running naked on a cool day has certain, uh, other complications. wink.gif

I thought Dave's descripton of his dad's alcoholism was striking. (I think this was in this chapter, I'm just going from some notes I took). It was interesting how the children dealt with father's behavior in their games they made up, it's left to the reader to decide whether the games were a means of trying to escape truly hurtful behavior, or just a reaction against the emptiness of the suburban culture in which they were raised, in which people live beyond their means in order to have the prestige of living in a certain zip code?

The exploration of the culture of mediocrity in the high school social sphere was pretty telling, how kids that were seen as overly rich or successful were seen as outcasts unless they dumbed themselves down in order to fit in.

#45 Mark

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 04:47 PM

QUOTE(Crow @ Feb 16 2005, 09:14 AM)
I thought Dave's descripton of his dad's alcoholism was striking. 

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This was striking for me, too. Especially the way Eggers cut up the narrative and reassembled it - part Tarantino, part telling the story the way you would if you were sitting around talking. At the start of the book, we get a brief picture of Dave's father as kind of a wacky, fun-loving guy whose life was cut short by cancer. Then in the MTV interview, we get a much more revealing picture of an angry alcoholic. I like the way this stuff unfolds, kind of casually, without a lot of REVELATION!!! that you'd get in a tell-all type of memoir.

#46 Mark

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 05:17 PM

A few things in this chapter stood out for me, even if they don't much advance what passes for a plot.

1. The scenes involving his friend's attempted suicide seem like they're hyper-influenced by Tarantino. It kept reminding me of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman ODs, and Travolta and his pals have to revive her. There's a sense of horror that the writer can mine such strong comedy from a really ugly situation. The scene with the cops, who seem so huge and their pens and notebooks seem so tiny, is really funny, even as John is about to or already has downed a bunch of pills. And Dave worrying whether he should offer the cops some grapes!

2. Eggers is very clever at deconstructing the writer as cannibal, feasting on all the tragedy surrounding him as good source material.

So there is first the experience, the friend and the threatened suicide, then there are the echoes from these things having been done before, then the awareness of echoes, the anger at the presence of echoes, then the acceptance, embracing of presence of echoes -- as enrichment -- and above all the recognition of the value of the friend threatening suicide and having stomach pumped, as both life experience and also as fodder for experimental short story or passage in novel, not to mention more reason to feel experientially superior to others one's age, especially those who have not seen what I have seen, all the things I have seen.

Later, when John gets up from his hospital bed to "leave" Dave's book because "I'm not going to be a f---ing anecdote in your stupid book" -- very clever, another self-conscious way for Dave to explore the way a writer exploits the people around him and regurgitates their experiences, no matter how horrible.

3. Most interesting part of the book for me is still Dave's relationship with Toph. Really liked the descriptions of Toph believing he's part of Dave's peer group, the same age as they are. I could identify with this because my three siblings are all quite a bit older, and I'd always end up hanging with them (or trying to, anyway), sucking up their music, their TV and movies, to the point where I sometimes got a little too big for my breeches and forgot how to act like a regular kid with other kids my age.

Also like how the stuff with Dave and Toph in the park reveals a lot about Dave's reliance on his brother.

But as much as I want to encourage his mingling with his own age group, I fear that if he becomes too involved elsewhere, he won't be ever-available for my own needs. What would one do if one did not have a Toph, sitting in his room, ready at a moment's notice, always willing to run one's errands, to be pushed against a wall and have his kidney punched, to be brought, as he is at the moment, to the Berkeley Marina, for the throwing back and forth of things? To not have Toph would be to not have a life.

#47 Crow

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Posted 21 February 2005 - 05:50 PM

I agree with what you said about how the attempted suicide scene was written, it seems like a scene from a Tarantino movie or a TV drama. Eggers raises some interesting points about the difference between a real near-tragedy and how it is played out in a work of fiction, the line between reality and fiction becoming blurred. Eggers communicates a sense of detachment here, as if he can't figure out how to deal with the situation, so he imagines it as a chapter in his book. The humor he draws out of the situation seems to be a coping mechanism.

The stuff about launching Might Magazine I didn't find as compelling, although there are a few interesting points about how a humanistic endeavor can turn on itself into self-centered cynicism.

#48 Mark

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 11:19 PM

Nothing much stood out for me in this chapter, except the Christmas scene was amusing. Funny to read the exchanges between Beth and Dave as they try to torture poor Toph, keep him from tearing into his Christmas presents.

Also amusing to read about Might's parody issue called "Twenty in their 20s." It's a pretty spot-on satire of those silly "movers and shakers" pronouncements magazines like to do.

#49 Mark

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 11:37 PM

Pretty entertaining chapter, with the whole thing about finding a celebrity whose death might have fallen under the media's radar, and settling on Adam Rich. Good deconstruction in the imaginary conversation with Toph on why it's so sick to do a "fake celebrity death" issue.

These people have already attained, at whatever age, a degree of celebrity you a--holes will never reach, and you feel, deep down, that because there is no life before or after this, that fame is, essentially, God -- all you people know that, believe it, even if you don't admit it. As children you watched him, in the basement, cross-legged in front of the TV, and you thought you should be him, that his lines were yours, that his spot on Battle of the Network Stars was yours, that you'd be so good on the obstacle course - you'd win for sure! So doing all this, when he's no longer such the world-conquering celebrity, gives you power over him, the ability to embarrass him, to equalize the terrible imbalance you feel about your relationship to those who project their charisma directly, not sublimated through snarky little magazines. You and everyone like you, with your Q&As or columns or Web sites - you all want to be famous, you want to be rock stars, but you're stuck in this terrible bind, where you also want to be thought of as smart, legitimate, permanent. So you do your little thing, are read by your little coterie, while secretly seething about the Winona Ryders and Ethan Hawkes ...

The stuff with Shalini almost dying when the deck collapsed -- I'm not really sure of the point of including that stuff. I guess Eggers gets at that later, during one of his imaginary conversations with "John" when he says the only people Eggers will include in his book are the ones with tragic circumstances. But honestly, I couldn't for the life of me remember who Shalini even was (or Meredith, Moodie, etc.), much less figure out why we were supposed to be moved by her near-death. All Dave's friends just kind of blended together throughout the book. I wasn't interested enough in any of them to go back and figure out who was who.

#50 Mark

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 11:45 AM

This chapter pretty much made the whole book for me. Dave's quest to go back to Chicago, find his parents' remains, confront the doctors who took their organs - very moving, filled with conflicting emotions.

The scene in the church was devastating: Dave remembering what he expected at his mother's funeral (capacity crowd, weeping priests, and then the roof comes off, and his mother appears, smiling like she always did, before ascending) vs. the reality.

This is the crowd that was at my father's. It should not be the same crowd, the same number! They were not the same, these two lives. Where are the people from town? Where are the parents of her former students? Where are my friends? Where are the world's people to honor her passing? Was it too gruesome? Are we too vulgar? What is happening? All she put in, all she gave for you people, she gave everything for you people and this is -- She fought for so long for all you people, she fought every day, she fought everything, fought for every breath until the last, sucking everything she could out of the air in that brown living room, gasped again and again, it was unbelievable, yes, she grabbed at the air, grabbed for us and for you, and where are you?



#51 Mark

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 12:06 PM

So, the final chapter. Whew! Yeah, 'exhausting' still fits. But I feel a little more enthusiastic about the book than some of you guys might feel. Christian, you especially seemed underwhelmed by it, and I agree with a lot of your criticism. By the end, I'm not sure what Eggers is trying to achieve other than indulge in some massive self-analysis session, peppered with huge doses of self-loathing.

Big asset: Eggers' writing, which is phenomenally good. Downside: No ability or desire to self-edit.

Big asset: The book's structure, which I compared before to Pulp Fiction in the way it takes what could be a standard, tear-jerking memoir and cuts up the narrative so we don't get a full picture of Dave's dysfunctional home life and possibly abusive father except in pieces much later in the narrative. Downside: Too much junk in between about Dave's friends and Might venture, although I can see how some of it is necessary to paint a picture of this strange nihilistic generation that's so bent on fame of any kind.

Still very disappointed that there's not some significant exploration of spiritual issues. I guess Eggers' indicates he's an agnostic, but still clings to some part of his mother's devout Catholicism? The complete lack of spiritual exploration irks me - especially when Eggers writes about every other aspect of his life, from his kidney stone to his efforts to get Toph into private school, which serve very little narrative purpose. Maybe I'm overly cynical, but the lack of deeper spiritual exploration makes me think that stuff just wouldn't appeal to the book's intended audience, so it was axed.



#52 Christian

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 12:20 PM

I couldn't have summed up the book any better, Mark.

A big THANK YOU to you for organizing this discussion, especially in the midst of your recent family situation. I'm looking forward to further book discussions here, even if I haven't read the book. blushing.gif

#53 Mark

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 01:58 PM

A 'thank you' right back at ya, for getting things rolling with this suggestion. Now I'm off to the book club topic to post some new candidates ....

#54 Crow

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 12:51 AM

Nothing really struck me about this chapter, either. There was a nice bit of irony about how Might magazine was mocking young entrepenuers when it was people like themselves that they were mocking.

#55 Crow

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 12:44 PM

I think the near-death of Shalini provides a sobering counterpoint to the Adam Rich fake-celebrity-death piece. Dave seems to be admitting how shallow the whole Adam Rich thing was by comparing it to what happens when someone he knows almost dies for real. In fact, Dave seems to be honest about admitting the shallowness of the entire Might Magazine enterprise in writing about it in such an irreverent manner. It's the human relationships that really matter, and the whole book is centered on Dave's relationship with Toph. At the same time, Dave has been honest about his own shortcomings in his relationship with Toph. This has been done in describing scenes like when he neglected Toph so he could have a one-night stand with the so-called "sexologist", or through Dave's fake interview segments with Toph throughout the book.

Going back to the Adam Rich incident, I did enjoy the bit of irony that even Hard Copy, the bottom-of-the-barrel when it comes to tabloid television, did fact checking, and Dave and his cohorts couldn't fool them.

#56 Crow

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 01:12 PM

I agree that this is the key chapter in the book, and it was quite moving.

There is a striking difference between the paths Dave and her sister Beth have taken in moving on. At her wedding Beth seems to have totally embraced California culture, rejecting her more staid Midwestern upbringing. Dave on the other hand feels a strong need to reconnect with his roots, so he goes back home to Lake Forest. Beth seems to want to put her parents' deaths totally behind her, and doesn't want to deal with their ashes. Dave on the other hand tries to find closure in giving her mother her final wish in how she wanted her ashes disposed of. The funeral scene was quite sad, as few of the people whom Dave's mother had known throughout her life cared enough to come back to the funeral.

It's poignant that during Dave's date with his old flame Sarah, that he can only think about finding the truth about his father. I think this illustrates how Dave has grown as a person through his personal reckoning and in learning to embrace what's truly important: family and true relationships, instead of frivolity like magazines and one-night stands.

#57 Crow

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 01:54 PM

The final chapter wraps things up nicely. There was an interesting parallel between Shaniti coming out of the coma and remembering nothing about her former life, and Dave and Toph leaving California behind, with friends scattering, the end of Might Magazine, and looking forward to the future.

The final scene with Dave and Toph playing frisbee recalls the scene on the beach earlier in the book, and things have come full circle. This is the relationship that endures.

I found that as frustrating as this book could be sometimes, I was glad to have read it. Dave is a good writer, and hopefully with more experience and a good editor, he can learn to downplay the meanderings that make him difficult to read. However, I will think twice before I decide to read anyone else's 300-plus-page thearpy excercise. smile.gif

Thank you Mark for organizing this discussion, and for your perceptive summary. I'm looking forward to more book discussions in the future.