On the other hand, if I were to become Dave Eggers, I would immediately take Benzedrine, stop showering, write for seven days without cease, finish a novel, and then turn back into James Bernard Frost to edit it.
Let me try to explain this.
I first became familiar with Dave Eggers's work when I was living in San Francisco and enrolled at USF's MFA Program. I was taking an autobiography class, the first class that all students in this program take. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.The first thing my professor said to me after reading my work was, "You write just like Dave Eggers." The first thing I did after leaving class was to go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of
I went home with the book, started reading it, and did not look up until I was done. It was the most startlingly energetic piece of writing I have ever read. The scene in which Eggers (spoiler alert) attempts to toss his mother's ashes into Lake Michigan was the most heartbreaking scene I have ever read in a memoir. Even now (spoiler alert), I think about the whole Adam Rich celebrity death ruse, and how Eggers essentially got his big "up" in the media world by faking a celebrity death, and him openly admitting how messed up that was.
The whole book was permanently imprinted into my brain. There was also something peculiar about it; there was a name in it that I recognized. The next day I walked into the office building where I worked and said hello to my co-worker Linda P. I said, "Hey Linda, are you the Linda P. in Dave Eggers book?"
I have never seen a person appear so deflated.
I wish I had a better story to tell you, but I never found out the whole story behind Linda's deflation. I'm only telling you because it was at that moment I figured out the thing that was bothering me about Dave Eggers's book — it wasn't careful... It was something else too, but I hadn't figured that out just yet.
I went to a packed reading not long after finishing the book. Eggers was charming. His energetic writing, when read out loud, was even more energetic. And better yet, he admitted that the publication of his book had been impatient. He even stood there with a pen as he was reading and edited the mistakes in his book. It was his first book! How could he have known how popular it would be? How could he have controlled the editing process? It wasn't his fault.
This all seemed legit until his next book came out. There's never been a more aptly titled book, You Shall Know Our Velocity! Because that's exactly what it was... fast. It was 10 times as energetic; it was 10 times as impatient; it was 10 times less careful... and it was all purposefully so. The plot goes something like this (spoiler alert): an unexpected millionaire (just like Dave Eggers!) flies off to poor countries and tries to give away his millions as quickly as possible, but, HA HA, the poor people won't take it, because they don't understand why a person would just give them money. Isn't it wonderful to care so little about money that you can just give it away!
I couldn't finish it. I hated it. I was done with Dave Eggers.
Now Dave Eggers, if you lived in San Francisco, is not an easy person to be done with. Everyone, and by everyone, I mean every white person with a college education and an interest in books, wants a piece of him. It's not just his amazingly powerful prose, it's also his charitable works. He notoriously pours his money into nonprofit work, including his own nonprofit, 826 Valencia.
826 Valencia is a story in and of itself. When it opened, it was fronted by a pseudo pirate gear shop, which sold bizarre items like blocks of lard. 826 Valencia was instantly the coolest thing in San Francisco, and everybody and their mother was falling all over themselves to volunteer there.
There was energy. There was speed. There was velocity. And the kids who went there to write stories... they were being helped. It was totally awesome. And then after he started 826 Valencia, he kept going. Dave Eggers started his own publishing company, so his money didn't go to the wrong people. Dave Eggers published a book about teachers — teachers! — which didn't sell many copies but was important. Dave Eggers was so good and so altruistic, how could anyone possibly not like Dave Eggers?
It's hard to criticize a guy who goes into a town and instantly jumpstarts a literacy program for kids, but there was also something — I don't know — twisted about it. Like would all these people be volunteering for 826 Valencia if Dave Eggers name wasn't attached to it? If they weren't also selling lard? Were people there to help kids, or because they wanted some sort of connection to someone über-cool?
Both books were departures. Dave Eggers wasn't writing about himself, he was writing the biographies, respectively, of a Sudanese Lost Boy, and a Middle Eastern-born Katrina survivor. He was pouring all his energetic writing into meaningful, politically-charged work. I read both books. The impatience was seeping away. Zeitoun was Eggers most mature work, a narrative from cover to cover, all that hurried writing gone away. I couldn't help myself. I was charmed again. I believed what his followers believed: Dave Eggers was good! Could he help it if everything he touched turned to gold? Could he help it if he was in such a hurry to give all his money away? Could he help being altruistic?
What kind of a jerk am I for thinking poorly of Dave Eggers?
And then Dave Eggers received the Günter Grass Award for writing Zeitoun. And then he refused to attend the award ceremony because of a poem Günter Grass recently wrote criticizing Israel. And then I finally put together what got so under my skin about You Shall Know Our Velocity and Dave Eggers in general.
There's something spoiled about him.
Because if I received the Günter Grass Award for writing a biography of a Syrian-American survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and Günter Grass, at 84, a Nobel Prize winner, and a guy who's lived through more shit than Eggers could possibly imagine was going to award it to me, I'd be down on my knees on the stage licking Günter's shoes.
Dave Eggers's next book, A Hologram for the King, will come out in June. (Or so we think... there are rumors on the Web that it's an elaborate hoax by the Dutch, which is a typically annoying Eggers sleight-of-hand.) Despite my ambivalence, I can't contain my curiosity about his latest novel. According to the description, it's a convoluted Eggers tale about a desperate American with a home in foreclosure and a daughter who wants to go to college who goes to the King of Saudi Arabia hoping to make a fortune by selling him holograms.
The book seems a classic tale of people without, forced to kiss up to people with. I couldn't be happier about the concept. When I get it, I'm going to read it straight through.
But as a single father selling his home and wondering how to get his children health insurance, I wonder if Eggers can play this right. Does he understand what it's like to be desperate? Or can he only play the part of the privileged king?
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James Bernard Frost is the author of the novels World Leader Pretend and A Very Minor Prophet, and the award-winning travel guide The Artichoke Trail. He lives in Oregon with the author Kerry Cohen, their four children, the rain, the freaks, and the trees. His bike is currently in disrepair.
Books mentioned in this post
James Bernard Frost is the author of A Very Minor Prophet