Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“Author Visit: Dave Eggers”

by Patrick Stephenson,
whining envier of the successful and well-dressed

WRITE ON RADIO // The Sunday before finals, nearly a month ago now, I met the writer Dave Eggers, which is to say that I sat behind a bookshelf in a crowded store, Eggerslistened to Eggers read selections from his new short story collection—How We Are Hungry—and afterward waited in line for his autograph.

The week before our meeting, during lunch with pals, I paused to answer a call from my sister, Emily, who transmitted news of his upcoming arrival. To my companions, I don’t think Eggers’ name was recognizable, but my excitement made me apathetic about any potential ignorance. I didn’t bother to ask if they’d read him, and didn’t much care if they had. I was too happy. We were, after all, lunching to celebrate the final unit of an awful class that demanded we sit still for an hour and change and listen to lectures from a bore.

Knowing that meeting Dave Eggers was in my future, and that I’d never again have to waste any more hours of my life in that bastard of a class, was incredible. An obstacle had been overcome, an award—an encounter with celebrity—lay ahead. My impression of Earth’s beauty had increased tenfold. Suddenly, what light there was had brightened, expanded and invaded my mind. Its invasion was welcome.

Dave Eggers!!! [1]

During a trip to San Francisco the previous spring, I’d forced my mom and sister to trek toward Valencia St., where Eggers and his literary troupe have established an organization whose title comes from its address: 826 Valencia. According to what I learned when I heard Eggers read, the space they rented originally belonged to a taxidermy supply store. Eggers wanted to use it to tutor area kids on writing, but landlord requirements demanded they sell something. Thus, in the back, 826 Valencia offers tutoring, while in the front, on sale are pirate supplies—big ole black hats, pirate hooks, skull-and-crossbones flags—as well as books from Eggers’ McSweeney’s publishing outfit. A new division of the organization has just opened in New York City, but they sell superhero supplies.

Pre-Reading: Impressions of the Hipsters, of Eggers

Finals still loomed when I met Eggers. Meeting someone whose work I love, however, relieved the anguish they were causing. The night we met was cold, so cold that my fingers froze when I attempted a phone call pre-reading. The temps delayed Eggers’ flight as well, and even though my sister and I arrived a little bit late, he and the audience arrived late, too. We managed to secure a front seat, in the middle of Eggers’ hipster crowd, but tired of waiting, bought dinner and returned an hour later. Eggers still hadn’t arrived.

That we were surrounded by hipsters was highly noticeable, and allowed for some reflection on audiences of readings past. Seeing Chuck Palahniuk meant we were surrounded by the tattooed and the hair-dyed. Seeing Susanna Clarke meant we were accompanied by the geeky and the glass-eyed. Eggers’ audience was well-groomed, and also more noticeably attractive than past crowds. The Eggers guys wore tight jeans and tight sweaters and stylish winter caps. The Eggers girls wore long coats and colored, transparent scarves. Ah, so many young hipsters.

Who knew hipster held any sort of stronghold in Minneapolis/St. Paul? Until I saw Dave Eggers, I didn’t, and realized, as I stood among them, that I wasn’t one of them. Unfortunately, my consciousness of this made my hipster revulsion arise, and I began to wonder if an author’s fanbase taints his work. If his fans seem outwardly shallow and affected, is an author’s work also necessarily artificial? I don’t know. I don’t feel that’s true in Eggers’ case: the amusing artifice of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, seemed more an expression of irony’s function as a defense mechanism. That Eggers would express this doesn’t make his work artificial. The opposite is true, I feel. [2]

When Emily and I had returned from dinner, we found that the semi-small crowd of which we’d earlier been a part had now grown to fill all of Bound to Be Read’s space, so that there weren’t any chairs and there wasn’t any standing room. We ducked behind a crowd to the left of the reading room’s podium, next to a display filled with weird little toys, and sat down against a bookshelf. “He’s a rock star!” I heard someone say, and wanted to vomit.

“I wonder when he’s going to get here,” said I.
“He’s here already,” said Emily.

I looked up and over the crowd in front. She was right, yes. Dave Eggers had arrived. “I don’t know why I’m here,” he said, and everyone laughed, because Dave Eggers is a rock star and, although much of his work of late isn’t up to par w/r/t A Heartbreaking Work, he exists in another world, a literary Olympus, a place from which he’d arrived by, get this, taking a plane like any one of us.

I had expectations: (a) I’d heard nubile girls throw themselves at Eggers, (b) I’d heard he’s an asshole. A. certainly seemed possible: the speaker who’d described him as a “rock star” had after all been female; I hadn’t, however, checked in to measure her nubility. B. seemed possible as well. [3] The “I don’t know why I’m here,” could’ve been interpreted as a sign that he hated Minnesota, hated being among us, wanted to leave and go somewhere else with fellows from the in-crowd. (Actually, like any comedian on a visit to Minn, he’d been joking about the cold weather.)

The Reading Itself

First impressions, during which I realized that Eggers looks like a scruffier but realer version of the photo on his jacket, and that he had a big pimple on his neck, were overcome. He read, firstly, from Created in Darkness By Troubled Americans, a compilation of the best humor writing from the web-end of McSweeney’s. I’d never thought much of the stuff, but Eggers read it funnily with delivery akin to (Minnesotan comedian) Mitch Hedberg [Ed: Hedberg was still alive when this was written], and suddenly, it was funny.

One piece was a list of unreleased song sequels, including a variation on “I wanna rock down to Electric Avenue” wherein the singer has tired of Electric Avenue and wants to leave. Apparently, he’s had too much to drink. Another piece in the book is an “unused” audio commentary, from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I’d heard this mentioned, by a guy to his lady friend, pre-reading: “…they talk about how the Orcs are oppressed. [energetic ha-ha].” The knowing laughter, the self-satisfaction and -love? To mine ears, they be a repellent and gooey liquid. Secondly, Eggers read from a story written by an 826 Valencia student, concerning an attempt to raise two hundred billion dollars for Dubya with a bake sale. I liked it, potentially more than what else Eggers had read so far.

Then, Eggers read from How We Are Hungry, his first—as yet—collection of short stories. [4] Several are short-short stories he wrote for a British magazine, and during the reading, he began there. Like the McSweeney’s pieces, they’re one-joke gags, meant to make an audience laugh and nothing more. I want to think and feel, damn you. There isn’t any depth beneath the cleverness. I hate that, during readings, authors often go for easy laughs instead of difficulty. I understand why, though: comedy is more commercial than drama; that people will buy your work is more likely if you make them laugh.

Finally, we reached “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” a full-on short story in which a woman named Pilar and a man named Hand fail to fall in love in Costa Rica. Like the other stories in his collection, the substance of “Oil-Wet Water” is revealed by its title. The main characters do not mix. Eggers’ stories detail exactly how his characters are hungry, for love and a sense of self and etc. Unfortunately, that Eggers read this story in his “funny voice” detracted from its quality, and I wondered if he always uses that voice, if it’s as much a defense against criticism as the intertextualities and prefaces were in his memoir.

He stumbled over a few words, and skipped others, in endearing fashion. Dave Eggers is flawed, like you and me! Therefore, Dave Eggers is also a sensitive rock star. As we waited for an autograph post-reading, I noticed that like all McSweeney’s releases, the hardcover of How We Are Hungry is gorgeous, a work of art. The cover is completely black and features an etching of a gryphon. When we finally reached him, I wasn’t confident enough to say anything more than, “Hi! We’re Patrick and Emily.” Inside my book, in addition to signing our names and his, Eggers drew a picture of a mole, or some other small, faceless and reclusive animal, burrowing into itself. “This is Steve,” Eggers wrote below his drawing, and then, “Indeed.”

Indeed. [5]

[1] Eggers originally gained fame, and earned acclaim, for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he describes his parents’ deaths from cancer, within a month of each other, in the aftermath of which Eggers raised his brother (Chris)Toph(er) and started a gen X magazine named MIGHT in sunny San Francisco.
[2] I may also be underestimating his hipster audience; prettiness doesn’t necessarily indicate shallowness.
[3] In spite of his philanthropy and ostensible awesomeness, my impression of Eggers’ potential for assholery came from a story I’d heard about an interview a college kid had conducted with Eggers the Man, wherein Interviewer had asked Eggers how he manages to “keep it real” in spite of his success. Hearing the kid’s remark, in the story I’d heard, Eggers proceeded to lecture him for—rumor has it—45 minutes about why he shouldn’t use clichés and slang. I understand the aversion to “keep it real,” but a 45 minute lecture seems harsh. Anyway, that was a rumor.
[4] Eggers book = must have awkward title.
[5] Despite the mockery implied by the shy mole Steve, Eggers wasn’t an asshole. Neither, btw, did any of the crowd’s nubile girls throw themselves at him. Bummer on that.

— P.S., for Write On Radio, October 2004

Written by patiomensch

February 28, 2007 at 9:50 pm

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