Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' - Don't judge a book by its title, because if you do so you could miss out on this book.  The title itself could be off putting for some, you could think, who the hell is this author, what is thinking of himself, how dare does he put such a boastful title etc etc. You could think all these be wrong on all these counts if you do not read this book, skipping it based based on the title alone. 

This is a quasi memoir of a part of Dave Egger's life when his parents passed away with a very short period of each other (1991-1992, when Dave was 21 ) and his taking care of his younger brother Tolph (8 at the time). There are 3 major themes things in this book 

     1. Altering the rules of conventional reading. 
     2. Zeroing in on a intensely personal experience and telling in a zany manner, without diluting it.
     3. Mapping the personal core to an universal experience

The rules of conventional reading are altered from the very beginning, right from the (supposedly) preface. Actually, whatever I (or any reader) am trying to convey in this post could already have been covered in some manner in the preface itself (an instance of the author predicting the reader), but having read it I have to say what I feel irrespective of whether I was manipulated as the author wanted or not. 

 The preface begins with the following note from the author

"DIALOGUE: This has of course been almost entirely reconstructed. The dialogue, though all essentially true - except that which is obviously not true, as when people break out of their narrative time-space continuum to cloyingly talk about the book itself - has been written from memory and reflects both the author's memory's limitations and his imagination's nudgings. All the individual words and sentences have been run through a conveyor, manufactured like so: 1) they are remembered; 2) they are written; 3) they are rewritten, to sound more accurate;4) they are edited to fit within the narrative (though keeping with their essential truth); 5) they are rewritten again to spare the author and the other characters the shame of sounding as inarticulate as they invariably to, or would, if their sentences, almost invariably began with the word "Dude - as in, for example, "Dude, she died -" were merely transcribed. "

At the very outset our opinions of memoirs are torn apart. If this is a memoir  then how can things like dialogues be rewritten/edited to fit the narrative fit into it?. Isn't a memoir supposed to be fully true, right down to the last clearing of the throat by a character. But that's just an illusion, a unspoken, sub-conscious agreement we enter with an author when we start reading a memoir (i.e) whatever is in the book is completely true and as it happened and it makes us cry/laugh with the (real?) events that happened. We do not take into account for instance the tricks that memory can play. This is true of all memoirs, but none of them come out in the open at the very beginning and straight out tell that there are obvious re-constructions in it. (well Marquez of course did it in his 'Living to tell the Tale' where he put it succinctly in a single line, but of course that memoir came about later than ABWOSG). This sets the tone for the entire book where we are always self-conscious about what is happening. No, this is not the much ballyhooed self-consciousness of a reader that he is at all times reading a work of fiction, but rather goes into the next level where the reader is as self-conscious about the fact that the author too is self-conscious about the reader being self-conscious as it is about being self-conscious about the content of the book itself. Confusing it may seen, but just look at it as endless recursive consciousness between the author and the reader. Dave plugs it in the preface where says

"The knowingness of the books self consciousness aspect:
While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referential. ..... : he also plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality. Further, he is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this...."

Let me tell you an instance of this self-consciousness. Midway in the book, the narrative style changes to an interview format, where Dave recounts his younger days in this format. Just as you think, "mmm, nice move by Dave to plug-in his past in a different format", he pops-up (in the middle of the interview) and says that, yes, he has brought in this gimmick. This is what I mean by endless recursive consciousness between the author and the reader, where the author too is conscious about how the reader would feel at certain points of the book.

There is also a section 'Mistakes we knew we were making' at the end, where Dave lists some omissions, changes, additions he did (like changing events, or events that didn't happen at all) making us look at the book in a different manner.  It would be interesting to read the book once again after going through 'Mistakes we knew we were making', it would surely be a different experience to the first time. Just think, you read something deeply moving, but then in this section you find that it didn't happen at all. If the book is labelled fiction, then it doesn't matter at all, but how would you feel about it in the context of this book being treated as a memoir. As for me, I look at it as both (quasi memoir) and probably that's the best way to approach this book, where you are never sure whether the author is laughing with you or at you.

These in your face proclamations in the preface (running up to 20 odd pages) can make a reader think that the author is showing off, trying to impress and intimidate.  But as I mentioned in the beginning, there is a deeply emotional core to the book, which starts off with Dave's mother terminally ill (his father having passed away just short time earlier), her demise and moves to Dave giving up his studies to take care of Tolph. They move to California where Tolph is enrolled and the rest of the book is pretty much about the next few years and their living together. Dave has an elder sister (not much older though) and elder brother. Just imagine this, a guy just 21, whose father has just died and he has come home again to see his mother too pass away. What sort of a scar it can leave to one. And it's not a case of the mother passing away suddenly, she is suffering from cancer and it is a gradual descent into the nothingness that is death. We know the outcome, but are not aware of when it will actually happen. Any decline in health could be it, but it could also turn out to be a false alarm. This uncertainty can be as tormenting as the actual event.   Dave's mother has one such sharp sudden decline in health and the conversation between Dave and his sister on it, brings forth the helplessness of being in such a situation. 

"This can't be it"
"It could be it."
"I know it could be it, but it shouldn't be it"
"She wants it to be it"
"No, she doesn't"
"She said so."
"She didn't meant it."
"What do you think?"
"I think she's scared"
"And I think she's not ready. I mean, are you ready?"
"No, of course not. You?"
"No. No, no".

Not your everyday conversation between two 20 something siblings right. It is the worst thing that could happen to any of us, where we something bad is going to happen and we are powerless to prevent it. It is bad enough when one is old and mature enough to face it, but when you are so young what do you do?Death could then become an obsession with you and that's what happens here,  the specter of death hanging over the entire book (more on this below).

Dave and Tolph migrate to California where Tolph is enrolled in a scholl and Dave does some part time jobs taking care of him. The narrative tone here is light, almost flippant, because that is how a 21 year old boy (because, lets face at 21 you are more of a boy than a man) would react to situations beyond his control. He is not a child to cry, but neither is he a man to face things stoically. So under the facade of lightheartedness, the emotional turmoil is buried. There is an overcompensation by Dave with respect to Tolph when he wants Tolph to feel utterly normal, as normal as he would feel if their parents were alive. (they play act with Dave as the father and Tolph asking him for something that is refused) There is always a balancing act on what Tolph should see or hear and what he should not (e.g. Dave's girlfriends are not discussed much). Dave becomes a kind of surrogate father albeit of a blundering kind. The blunder could be a minor one where Dave wakes up very late, resulting in Tolph being late to school, for which Dave composes the following note.

"Dear Ms.Richardson,
I am sorry Chris is late this morning. I could make something up about an appointment or a sickness, but the fact is that we woke up late. Go figure.
Brother of Chris"

The blundering could also be of a slightly more serious (hygienic) kind like

"We have an ant problem. We have an ant problem because we have not yet grasped the difference between paper mess and food mess. We leave food out, we leave food on the plates in the sink, and when I finally turn myself to the task of washing the dishes, I must first wash away all the ants, those tiny black ones, off the plates and silverware and down the drain."

These may be flippantly described, but underneath it is the struggle they undergo to just get through a normal day. The apparent lightheartedness is exposed when Dave tells that

"We scrape through every day blindly, always getting stumped on something we should know - how to plunge a toilet, how to boil corn, his Social Security number, the date of our father's birthday - such that every day that he gets to school, that I get to work and back in time for dinner, each day that we cook and eat before nine and he goes to bed before eleven and doesn't have blue malnourished- looking rings around his eyes like he did for all those months last year - we never figured out why - feels like we've pulled off some fantastic trick - an escape from a burning station wagon, the hiding of the Statue of Liberty"

So, Dave misses forms to filled, sending them in at the last moment, forgets date/time of the school functions, the house is unclean, Tolph is often dressed shabbily but still the 2 manage to create a household of sorts, which is very different from the normal ones, but that's because you cannot expect a 21 year old care full boy to suddenly become the master of the house, with no one guiding him. And, in a truly poignant role reversal of sorts, sometime after a couple of years, one night Dave is down and out and Tolph fixes food and takes care of him. It is a very small part yes, but it's like when parents become aged and the children start taking care of them. Similarly at that point we see that Tolph is no more a child who needs full time caring, but is one who can look after his elder brother. Small moments like these bring forth the bonding between the two.

Where Dave takes the personal into the universal is his obsession with death. Dave obsesses about his own death of AIDS, wonders about funerals, obsesses about the remains of his parents and is always trying to face up to it. His casual attitude is but a reaction to the omnipresent death. It is always the unspoken, unseen character in this book. It is present everywhere and at all times. Death and flippancy go hand in hand here, complementing each other like the Ying and the Yang. Even when Dave is happy, he cannot stop thinking about it. When Dave goes on a date leaving Tolph with a babysitter he cannot stop obsessing about how the babysitter turns out to be a child abuser and torments and kills Tolph. Not just Dave, but death does touch several of his friends too. Shalini has a near death experience after which she goes into a coma and only partially recovers, John also has lost both his parents and is always threatening he is going to commit suicide, leading him to be admitted to psychiatric wards. Death leaves no one untouched and it is final. But it is something that is very difficult to come to terms with even when you are old and mature, leave alone when you are so young. At that stage in life, you try to avoid it, try to put it off as late as possible, but the harder you try the harder it becomes to forget about it. That's why Dave discusses a world where all people get together in the morning, raze all the buildings to ground and build a new set of buildings at the end of the day. The next day the same routine is followed. Nothing is permanent except the impermanence of everything and there is no finality (like death) as buildings keep getting destroyed and built and every day(the resurrection is almost instantaneous). Kind of like 'Sisyphus' myth in reverse, where man is ready to the same thing again and again and chooses (partially) infinite monotony over finality (death).

Caught up in these emotions, one could easily fail to grasp the sense of time and place that is captured in vivid detail here and which is of importance too. The time period is the early 90's, a period where the initial breakthroughs of all the advancements in technology/entertainment were being made. We see through Dave's eyes the tech companies set up in California (in what would be widely known throughout the world just a bit  later as of course 'Silicon valley'), people working there for 10-12 hours in search of the next breath through. We see the advent of MTV and reality shows in their infancy and their potential for causing havoc with our lives. Even Dave's obsession with Aids is a reflection of the times. Remember the early 90's when Aids first burst on the screen? It was the scariest thing imaginable. I remember the uproar it caused even in India when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. Remember it was the time of pre-liberalized or just liberalized India and the media wasn't so pervasive. But still I remember reading about HIV in just about every paper and magazine (both English and Tamil). It was the N-bomb of that 90's just waiting to explode. That's why Dave doesn't just worry about death, AIDS is always a tag to it. These things make the book more real and not like the events in it happened in some kind of vacuum

Heartbreaking it definitely is, but staggering? Yes it is that too in several places, but Dave kind of extends it to an extent where it seems thrust upon. I will put it this way. Consider an instant in a tennis match, where Federer is in the middle of the court, his opponent is completely out of position at one end of the court, one entire side of the court is available to Federer to launch a winner, but what does he do? He plays a cute drop shot, which is risky. What happens then? If the shot falls correctly and he gets the point, we praise him for his incredible ability. But if it hits the net, then we tend to say it was a risky shot. Here in Tennis, the validity of the shot depends on it's outcome, but it hits the target it's a good shot irrespective of whether it was the correct shot for that moment. But fiction doesn't work that way. Irrespective of whether something is written well, it makes a impact only when the author can convince a reader that what was written at a particular point makes sense at that point. If the reader is not convinced about it, that part seems superfluous to him and that's what happens here some times. Like at the beginning of the book, after Dave and his Sister talk about their mothers sudden deterioration, there is a 2-3 page inner monologue where Dave starts imagining about the funeral, who will come, the eulogy etc. Now, he obsesses about death a lot throughout the book, but here at this point it seemed a definite attempt at manipulation. Of course, in the preface itself he mentions that the books will do all these kinds of trickery, but still it's a bit jarring. Compared to this, his thinking about Tolph being killed by the babysitter is more in tune with the flow of the book. Yes, it's acceptable that Dave would think constantly about his Tolph on a date especially given their situation, but when you think about it in detail, it is debatable whether he would go to the extent of imagining Tolph being sexually assaulted, the baby sitter taunting Dave with notes etc. But this is where as a reader you get into a tacit agreement with the author, whereby you accept this obsessiveness as being possible. This happens several times in the book, at the same time it does fail too sometimes. 

Ultimately, whether you like the book or not, whether you find it staggering or heartbreaking depends on your expectations of fiction. If you are one who likes precise, almost perfect fiction you would probably be put off by it. But if you like large, sprawling works (not in size, but in ideas and themes), which may not be perfect or near perfect, has some extraneous parts, but which however take us to areas unseen and unobserved till now, this is for you.

While reading it, one cannot avoid thinking about 'Infinite Jest' and the manner in which both these 2 books converge and diverge, not in any specific themes, but in a more general manner. It starts right from the titles. 'Infinite', 'Heartbreaking', etc immediately indicate a larger scope . If DFW uses footnotes as a means of disrupting our reading, Dave uses the preface and the 'Mistakes we were making' section to do the same. If one hand, DFW takes the universal concept of pursuit of happiness and maps it to individuals and it's impact on them, Dave takes the deeply personal emotion of an individual seeing death and maps it to mankind's general obsession with it. And finally both books prove that the form/narrative style of a book need not be gratuitous or self-serving, that it can co-exist with it's content without affect the actual storytelling and indeed embellish it too. This to me is the  biggest achievement of this book, that in spite of the various tropes like the meshing of different of all narrative styles, disruption of the reading process, the author popping up now and then etc, it still remains deeply personal and moving.

No comments:

Post a Comment