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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers

Simon & Schuster, February 17, 2000

You have been determined, then and since, to get this down, to render this time, to take that terrible winter and write with it what you hope will be some heartbreaking thing.

Only a miracle prevents bookshelves from collapsing under the tonnage of misfortune recounted in innumerable memoirs written by people turning personal pain into unabashed commodity. This one was sexually abused by her father and wrote a best seller. That one suffered from addiction, entered rehab and exited the tumult glorified a literary phenomenon: A notorious talk-show host spotlighted the author’s courage, sending throngs to cash registers for a harrowing plight, while die-hard fans continued their praise of the soul-baring effort, even after the ordeal revealed a hoax. Surely there exists (no surprise, then, that distinguishing between what is real or fabricated is a dubious proposition) a history of a well-known corporate titan reared in the poorest of homes, eating dog food for breakfast, the first and only meal of the day—lunch and dinner too extreme a luxury—but who rose from destitution to run a wildly successful business empire, hire a personal chef and dine at the most exclusive restaurants around the globe, sometimes sneaking out an extra dinner roll tucked in an Armani coat pocket, forever beleaguered by memories of abject poverty. Stories tinged by tragedy all, published for the masses. Woe is everywhere. Sufferers expose their inner selves … no, no … not for selfish gain but … offering, out of budding irrepressible altruistic obligation, strength through adversity in gross supply.

Oh please let me show this to millions. Let me be the lattice, the center of the lattice. Let me be the conduit. There are all these hearts, and mine is strong, and if there are—there are!—capillaries that bring blood to millions, that we are all of one body and that I am— Oh, I want to be the heart pumping blood to everyone, blood is what I know, I feel so warm in blood, can swim in blood, oh let me be the strong-beating heart that brings blood to everyone!

Lay it on the line—no holding back. Confess the ugliest of sins and open the floodgates to the harshest of details, purging one’s self of the hurt inside for the wealth of society. Be glib. Be contradictory. Lie, as long as invention is honestly acknowledged. Just write the whole mess down, allowing agony to prosper outside lonely flesh, for unleashing sorrow provides a cathartic sense of hope and salvation. Ah, the satisfaction in shared experience! Weep together and nourish the deed of intimate revelation. Could disclosure be any more intrinsic than between strangers?

We are fairly convinced that what we have here is a work of such powerful genius and prophecy that it may very well start riots.

For instance, start with the basics, suggesting life as an outsider. Include a brief section recalling the experience of a rescued wild bunny dying in the hands of a child. (Regard this passage’s subtle inclusion as foreshadowing or some arty technique to catch the attention of scholarly types.) Follow with a chapter about witnessing the death of Grandpa on Easter Sunday, just as the family sat down with helpings of sliced ham, emphasizing that terribly moving image of a boy cowering behind the darkened basement bar, crying amidst shock and confusion. Make sure to impart the terror surrounding the pandemonium when an angry Daddy shattered the window on the front door with his right arm during the course of a horrific struggle on the fight to his car parked outside, where a jail cell at the local police station supposedly anticipated the dispatch of a bad, bad boy, except the Chrysler never left the driveway because diapers soaked the blood oozing from Dad’s sliced forearm, making it difficult to drive, or awkward and incriminating, at the very least, to explain to the arresting officer. Express every sad detail about what it was like watching a young friend contort beneath the speeding car that ran him over, and the neighbor up the street, who flagged down the driver, who wore bare feet … screeching tires and the screams of children melding together in a sickening wail rushed residents outdoors for blocks (Really? Or was Oscar—no one else—coincidentally walking on his front lawn?) … ending a hit-and-run in progress one carefree summer afternoon. Disclose the humiliation when those outside the ones doing the laundry at the house were told about the safety pins secretly fasted to underwear flies. Express for the first time what happened in the woods; mothers, for the umpteenth time, good things never happen in the woods. Riding Hood is proof alone. Illustrate the lifelong effects of repeated shame like no one ever has done or been capable of testifying. Let those private thoughts usually locked twisted in the brain unravel and flow from the cranium like ribbons sprouting over the top of a grand Maypole. Captivated admirers grab ahold of the silky braids, which are free for the taking, and dance, dance, dance! … weaving the colorful strands into an exhibition for everyone’s curious jubilation. Finally, concede tribulations are paralyzing to this day but fulfill the obligation, articulating each sorry event because harboring despair is a sickness onto itself.

Have I given you enough? Reward me. Put me on television. Let me share this with millions. I will do it slowly, subtly, tastefully. Everyone must know. I deserve this. I have this coming. Am I on? Have I broken your heart? Was my story sad enough?

Questioning how such fortune bequeaths its dowry in the kangaroo court of hard knocks is futile. Allocations make absolutely no sense, nor do attorneys have the power to draw up the will of the living—pro bono or otherwise. Judgments are left to someone or something else. Nevertheless, humans demand order out of chaos, providing credence to simple coping mechanisms, encouraging that bad things happen for a purpose; anguish is not relegated arbitrarily. Accept as an honor getting plucked from the crowd by an unseen entity named F-A-T-E. Confidently compare injustices in a competition of one-upmanship and sell extraordinary circumstance as the most pitiful on record. Do not forget to seek a lesson in the journey because pain numbs without meaning. Grief is a welcome presence and, of course, a self-serving advantage.

Can you not see that we’re extraordinary? That we were meant for something else, something more? All this did not happen to us for naught, I can assure you—there is no logic to that, there is logic only in assuming that we suffered for a reason. Just give us our due.

Magnificent rewards await the afflicted, in the form of strangers, talk-show hosts—the world at large—holding arms outstretched ready for a matronly cradle. Snuggle warmly to her healing bosom. She cloaks her loving arms around, clutching tight, while solipsistic dreams come true, once she utters sympathies tailored for weak, stricken ears: “Unbelievable. Never have I heard such a touching saga. You are so very special.” The brutal truth, told with a wink and a nod, however, cuts its own lacerations but is also the wondrous candor separating one voice from the rest, amazingly suspending surrounding narrations from buckling the maudlin surfaces upon which an entire genre rests:

I have not been chosen. She tells me how close I was, how much they liked me, how sad my story was (and it was, it was), but that mine was one of hundreds, that I was only one of so many, most of them younger than me, carrying around this sort of cross and that kind of baggage, people with the sorriest backgrounds. . . .